July 9th, 2018

Confused About the Legal Status of Marijuana

Legal questions of MarijuanaAre you confused about whether marijuana or any of the individual components of the plant are legal? It’s no wonder if your answer is yes. The legal status of cannabis is complicated to begin with and full of inconsistencies. In addition, the laws are changing, and so are enforcement policies. And then there is the question of what impact these changes have on clinical practice. In our outpatient rehabilitation program, we have seen an increase in the number of patients with cannabis (marijuana) addiction. How strong is the evidence that this increase might be connected with the changing laws?

Four Options for Legal Status of Cannabis

In this article, however, I will only focus on the legal status of cannabis. Somewhat oversimplified, there are four options:

  1. Prohibition: possession or sale of any amount is considered to be a criminal act – conviction results in a felony and possible imprisonment. This is the current situation on a Federal level in this country, based on “marijuana” being placed in Category I of the Controlled Substances Act. Because of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Federal law overrides less restrictive State cannabis laws.
  2. Decriminalization: possession of a small amount for personal recreational use is still illegal but not criminal in that it is treated as a misdemeanor or a civil violation – a citation results in a fine equivalent to a minor traffic violation or littering. Many states have made this change.
  3. Medical Legalization: the plant or its components can only be used for medical purposes. This exists on two levels. It is legal on a Federal level to a limited extent – synthetic THC has been available by prescription since 1985 and is categorized as Schedule III. (Pharmaceutical CBD was just approved by the FDA, but it is still illegal because the DEA has not yet moved it out of Schedule I.) On another level, however, Federal law maintains that the plant and its components have no medical value and are illegal. Because of this, physicians can recommend but not prescribe it. The Department of Justice can shut down any of these operations, which it has recently threatened to do.
  4. Full Legalization for Recreational Use: its use and commercial sale is regulated and taxed like alcohol. This is being done in an increasing number of states but, again, this conflicts with Federal law. Canada, on the other hand, is about to become the second country after Uruguay to do this. 

For those of you interested in a more detailed and nuanced description, I highly recommend Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, 2nd Edition. 2016 by Caulkins, Kilmer, and Kleiman.

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