Marijuana, also known as cannabis, weed, pot, or dope, refers to the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds of the Cannabis sativa L. plant. This plant contains over 100 compounds, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is impairing, and cannabidiol (CBD), which is not impairing. The history of cannabis and its legal status have undergone significant changes, particularly in the United States.
In the 1960s and 1970s, cannabis use became more acceptable among young White adults, leading to an overwhelmed legal system with arrestees. This situation eventually led to the relaxation of marijuana felony penalties. Despite this shift in societal attitudes, federal law has prohibited the use and distribution of marijuana in the U.S. since 1937. However, over the past five decades, states have been experimenting with marijuana liberalization policies. Decriminalization policies first appeared in the 1970s, and patient medical access laws began to be adopted in the 1990s.
California made a significant move in 1996 by becoming the first state to permit legal access to and use of botanical cannabis for medicinal purposes under physician supervision through the Compassionate Use Act. As of January 1, 2017, 28 states, Washington D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico have enacted legislation governing the medicinal use of cannabis.
The disparity between federal and state marijuana regulations has been a point of contention. While the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not enforced the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in states that allow medical marijuana, it reaffirmed that marijuana growth, trafficking, and possession remain crimes under federal law, irrespective of states’ marijuana laws. Federal law enforcement has generally focused its efforts on criminal networks involved in the illicit marijuana trade.
In a significant policy shift, President Biden announced a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. This move represents a major change in federal marijuana policy, although it does little to alter the growing disparity between federal and state marijuana regulation. Additionally, in November 2022, voters in five states considered ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana use, further highlighting the evolving legal landscape of cannabis in the U.S.
The evolution of marijuana legislation in the U.S. reflects a complex interplay of societal attitudes, legal reforms, and federal-state conflicts. From the early days of prohibition to the recent steps towards decriminalization and legalization, the journey of cannabis law is indicative of changing perceptions towards this once wholly illicit substance.
For further information on these developments, please refer to the following sources:
Recent Developments in Marijuana Law – CRS Reports,
Federal Statement from President Biden on Marijuana Reform,
What We Know about Marijuana – CDC,
A History of United States Cannabis Law – PubMed.