The legal status of marijuana in the United States has been evolving for several decades. Marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level, has seen a shift in its legal status at the state level. Over 50% of U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have legalized marijuana for medical use. Furthermore, an increasing number of states are legalizing it for non-medical adult use.
This trend of legalization began over 25 years ago, with California being the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, no state has reversed its legalization of medical or recreational marijuana. As of March 1, 2023, 21 states, along with DC, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, have enacted laws allowing the recreational use of marijuana. These initiatives typically remove all state-imposed penalties for specified activities involving marijuana.
Despite these state-level changes, federal law, since 1937, has prohibited the use and distribution of marijuana in the United States. However, in recent decades, states have been experimenting with marijuana liberalization policies. Decriminalization policies started in the 1970s, followed by patient medical access laws in the 1990s. Today, in states where marijuana is legal, it has become a fast-growing industry, with sales to individuals over 21 in various settings, including retail stores, wineries, breweries, coffee shops, dispensaries, and online platforms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have highlighted the public health concerns and impacts of marijuana use. Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug globally, often beginning in adolescence. Heavy use during adolescence and young adulthood is linked to negative consequences like school dropout and truancy. Moreover, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, with a significant number of Americans reporting past-month use and many entering emergency rooms annually with primary marijuana-related problems.
Even as the legal landscape changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales remain crucial. Legalization removes criminal penalties for personal cannabis use and allows the production and sale of cannabis to adults, often regulated similarly to alcohol.