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Ultimate Guide to Marijuana Legalization Within the US

Jan 21, 2021
Legalities of Growing

Intro to Marijuana Legalization Within the US

Marijuana was once legal in the US. In fact, farmers were encouraged to grow hemp. Over time, with the introduction of the recreational use of marijuana, views on whether it should be legal changed drastically, and it became illegal to grow, possess, or buy and sell marijuana. In recent years, however, this is changing again. There’s now a bigger push to decriminalize and legalize marijuana, and many states are taking steps to decriminalize it or legalize medical and recreational use. Right now, laws vary significantly between states, though marijuana possession and cultivation are both seen as illegal by the federal government. Still, there is a push to change this, so while legalization is varied right now, it could change in the future. 

Marijuana History in the US

Starting in the 1600s, the government encouraged the production of hemp. It was used for creating rope and cloth, which was then used to create sails and clothing, as well as paper. Hemp seeds were also added to a variety of different foods common during this time. In fact, in the early 1600s, farmers were required by law in Virginia to grow hemp on their farms. In some places, it was considered legal tender. Hemp could be used to purchase items, just like paper money or coins. This continued for more than 200 years during the start of the United States, and hemp continued to be grown until the late 1800s.

During the Civil War, changes were made in what was used to create cloth. Imports of cotton became more popular, and there was a switch to growing cotton for clothing and sails instead of hemp. The value of hemp declined, and it wasn’t grown as much anymore. After the civil war, however, marijuana started being used as a medicine. It was sold in pharmacies throughout the united states and could be found in many medical products. By 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required it to be included on the medication labels it was in. Still, it was easy for anyone to purchase and used to help cure a large variety of medical ailments at this time. To learn more about the early use of hemp, visit

Marijuana Legalization Criminalization 

In the early 1900s, due to the Mexican Revolution, many immigrants came to the US and brought with them the recreational use of marijuana. At this time, recreational use was connected with the immigrants, and many people connected fear and prejudice about the immigrants with the recreational use of marijuana. This led to anti-drug campaigns that warned about the dangers of marijuana and crimes that were said to occur because of marijuana and the new immigrants. 

By the 1930s, the Great Depression and rising unemployment numbers led to resentment of immigrants and concerns about marijuana use. Marijuana was then linked with violence and crimes, and by 1930, 29 states ended up making marijuana illegal. In the late 1930s, the Marijuana Tax Act was created, which restricted the use of marijuana to those who paid a tax or had certain authorized uses for it. In 1944, new studies showed that marijuana was less dangerous than believed, and in the 1940s, hemp was imported to help create materials needed for World War II. 

By the 1950s, however, federal laws were set in place that included mandatory sentences for drug-related charges, which included marijuana. In the 1970s, many of these sentences were repealed. Some states started to decriminalize marijuana, and others began to reduce the penalties for possession. During the 70s, numerous groups were formed, both for and against marijuana. In the 1980s, new laws were created by the federal government, making marijuana illegal again and creating the three-strikes policy. 

Push to Decriminalize

There have been pushes to decriminalize or legalize marijuana for years. In the 1960s and 70s, groups form to push decriminalization and to spread information about the benefits of marijuana use. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that medical use was legalized in California. Despite marijuana still being illegal federally, California medical patients could obtain and use marijuana within the state.

Since then, several other states have moved toward decriminalization and legalization. Each state has unique laws, which do violate federal laws but can include decriminalization, legalization for medical use, and legalization for recreational use. Today, a growing number of state governors are pushing to include marijuana legalization through 2020. 

In Colorado, there is a push to increase the number of banks that will work with the legal cannabis businesses. There’s also a push to boost hemp production within the state to help the economy. In Connecticut, the governor is pushing toward legalizing cannabis. According to Forbes, there are several other governors across the US trying to legalize marijuana in their state, as well.  

Differences between Medical and Recreational Laws

Legalization, depending on the state, is for medical use only or recreational and medical use right now. Neither of these means that it is fully legal for someone to have marijuana in their possession, as there are still limits on what each individual can possess or carry with them at one time. Marijuana users, whether for recreational or medical use, do need to understand their local laws before any purchase.

Medical use is generally restricted to someone who has a medical marijuana card. The individual needs to have the card with them if they have marijuana in their possession outside of their home. Medical use can be restricted to a certain amount, and it may or may not be legal for someone to grow cannabis for medical use, depending on the state. Most states have limitations on what ailments can quality for a medical marijuana card.

Recreational use is usually limited by age, with only adults being able to obtain marijuana legally. There may be restrictions for where marijuana can be purchased in these states, whether or not cannabis can be grown at home, and how much someone can have on them at home or when they’re not at home. Recreational users can purchase up to the limit for their state for personal use and cannot sell cannabis to others or provide it to those who are underage. 

States Where Marijuana Use is Legal

As of November 4, 2020, 16 states have legalized marijuana use and have laws on the books for who is allowed to purchase cannabis and how much they can have at one time. There are 36 states that allow medical use of marijuana in some form and other states that allow CBD oil only. As of this time, 32 states have decriminalized cannabis, though it is still illegal to possess for recreational use. While still not legal, decriminalization does remove the mandatory jail terms for anyone caught with a small amount of marijuana. It is still possible to be fined for possession of small amounts or arrested for larger amounts.

History of Marijuana Legalization in the US

In the 1970s, a cannabis user successfully defended a cannabis possession charge on the basis that it was medically necessary for him. He ended up being able to receive marijuana from the federal government for two years. This led to another lawsuit, where he again began receiving marijuana from the federal government, along with 13 other individuals. 

Only two of those individuals are still alive and receiving cannabis through the program. Despite few people being able to take advantage of the program, by the end of 1982, more than 30 states created laws for the medical use of cannabis. By the mid-1980s, however, many of these laws were repealed or expired since marijuana was still illegal at the federal level.

The first recent turn toward reform was in California. In 1996, voters approved Proposition 215, which allowed for the legalization of medical marijuana within the state. A physician’s recommendation was required for someone to obtain medical marijuana, but once they had a medical marijuana card, they could purchase, consume, possess, and cultivate cannabis for medical purposes. 

The District of Columbia, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, and Oregon all followed suit, allowing for medical use of marijuana within the state. Maine and Colorado, as well as other states, followed suit in the next few years. However, the federal government threatened to revoke doctors’ ability to write prescriptions if they recommended marijuana to patients. This led to the Conant V. McCaffrey supreme court case, which said that physicians could recommend, but not prescribe, marijuana. 

By 2009, the decision was made for attorneys to only prosecute medical providers who violated state law or who violated other federal laws. Still, medical providers continued to be prosecuted under federal laws until a new amendment was passed in 2014 that prohibited this. 

Starting in the early 2000s, there was also a new wave to decriminalize cannabis. This occurred at the city level in many areas, though states started looking into decriminalization during the mid-2000s. By 2012, Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of cannabis, the first states to do so. Other states have followed in recent years, and many more are currently considering it. Still, marijuana use is considered illegal federally. Read more on the legal history of cannabis to see an updated list for which states have legalized for medical or recreational use.

Buying Cannabis in Legal States

Despite being illegal federally, it is legal to purchase cannabis in some states. It is vital for residents and visitors to understand the laws of the state they’re in, especially if they’re purchasing for medical use, as the restrictions will vary between states. To purchase cannabis legally, no matter which state, it’s necessary to visit a dispensary. This allows marijuana to be taxed, though the amount of tax can vary based on the state. Purchasing cannabis elsewhere is still considered illegal, as permits are needed for a company to sell marijuana. 

At the dispensary, there are a variety of different strains available, as well as different ways to purchase cannabis. Loose flowers are available, as well as the supplies needed for vaporizers. Most dispensaries also offer edibles, creams, lotions, and sublingual drops, though the varieties will vary by the dispensary. In states where recreational use is legal, anyone can shop at a dispensary as long as they are of age. If medical use is legal, but recreational is not, patients will need to show a medical marijuana card to make a purchase. Check out more information on how to buy cannabis in legal states before heading to a local dispensary. 

States Working Towards Recreational Legalization

The 2020 election was a huge step forward for marijuana legalization. Recent polls suggest that around 67% of adults in the United States favor legalization, so there were a number of propositions added to ballots throughout the states. According to recent studies, with more than 90% of people in the US approving of at least medical use being legalized, it does look like there is far more support behind these propositions than ever before. For this election, five states had marijuana on the ballots, though it did vary between medical or recreational use depending on the state. 

Cannabis and the 2020 Election

The 2020 election saw seven initiatives in five different states. Each state had a different proposition on the local ballots, ranging from medical use to adult recreational use. Propositions did vary in what they covered, including propositions to set the age for recreational use, the ability to regulate and tax marijuana, and how medical use would be implemented if approved. 

State Ballot Measures

Montana had two propositions, one for adult use that discussed legalization for recreational use, regulation, and taxation for cannabis, and one that would set the minimum legal age for marijuana to 21. South Dakota also had two, one for medical marijuana use and another for adult recreational use. The one for adult recreational use was also designed to protect medical laws.

Arizona, Mississippi, and New Jersey all had one proposition each on the ballots. Arizona and New Jersey had propositions regarding the adult recreational use of marijuana, while Mississippi’s ballot was for medical use. There was an additional proposition in Mississippi that competed against Initiative 65, which gave the state legislature greater regulatory control if it passed. 

Ballot Results

All propositions for the 2020 election did pass. Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey voted to legalize adult recreational use of cannabis, and Mississippi voted to allow medical use. South Dakota voted to legalize medical and recreational use at the same time. This was the first state to do both during the same election. With the election results, around 33% of people in the US now live in an area that has legalized recreational use, and around 70% of states now allow for medical use. More people can access marijuana for medical or recreational use today. 

Marijuana Legalization – State Versus Federal

The main concern for marijuana legalization is that it is still illegal federally. Though states have taken the initiative, and some have legalized marijuana for recreational use amongst adults, it is still illegal federally. Those who purchase marijuana legally in one state cannot then take it across the border to another state without breaking laws and risking federal charges. 

Since marijuana is illegal federally, it is still possible for consumers to be arrested and charged with federal violations for marijuana possession, cultivation, or sale. However, most who grow or purchase marijuana for personal use do not need to worry about this. Though more states are looking at legalization, there are still several challenges they face. Residents can learn more about the variations between federal or state laws to understand what is legal in their state and what might happen in the future. 

Challenges to State Laws

There are a few challenges that states face when they attempt to legalize marijuana. The first is that marijuana is still considered illegal under federal laws. Though states can make their own laws, federal laws overrule any laws for the states. The second is that the states must pass a vote to allow for legalization to occur. However, out of the states who attempted this on the 2020 ballot, all of them passed. The next challenge that some states face is figuring out the what and how. 

To legalize marijuana, it’s necessary to clarify exactly what is legal and what is not. This includes how much someone can possess, where an individual can purchase cannabis, how old someone needs to be to buy marijuana, what taxes are involved, what the taxes are used for, and whether or not cultivation is legal. States who are looking to attempt legalization over the next few years need to carefully consider each of these details, as they can make a huge difference in whether the ballot passes during future elections or not. 

federal marijuana legalization

Federal Challenges

There are several challenges for federally legalizing marijuana, which need to be figured out before laws can change. Right now, worries include how marijuana would be regulated, and how laws would be enforced, how to control access for minors, and how to handle black market cannabis sales. If marijuana is legalized federally, the inconsistencies between different state laws can become an issue since each state currently has a unique take on the marijuana laws.

With legalization, the federal government would need to determine how the regulation and enforcement would be handled. Would there be a law governing this for the entire United States, or would each state need to develop their own laws? The age of use is generally 21 years old, but states right now are able to set their own age. Would this change with a federal law, or would it be like alcohol laws, where each state can set its own minimum age? 

Black market cannabis sales still exist because it is less expensive to purchase marijuana on the black market than through a dispensary. Federal laws would need to take this into account and may need to address it to reduce black market sales. Additionally, the federal government would need to determine how to handle all of the differences between state laws. One way could be to create minimum laws that states can then adjust to meet their own needs, but this could be difficult to implement. 

Congressional Votes to Block Federal Enforcement of Law

One of the biggest issues for legal states right now is that it is still illegal federally, which means residents can be prosecuted for possession or cultivation of marijuana, despite the laws in the state. However, this is changing. In 2019, the House of Representatives voted to approve a measure that would block the federal law enforcement agencies from interfering in state marijuana laws. This means that the federal government will not interfere in how states decide to proceed, though crossing state lines or violating other federal laws could still lead to an arrest. 

There are still issues to be considered, however. Some amendments could allow military veterans to be recommended medical marijuana through Veterans Affairs as well as another spending bill that is designed to help protect banks who do business with dispensaries in states where recreational use is legalized. This has been a huge issue, as banks could be penalized for creating an account for dispensaries or cultivators, which means few banks were willing to serve these customers. Check an article on Forbes to learn more about the enforcement block or the issues that need to be considered further. 

Right now, the laws on marijuana can be confusing. Despite being illegal federally, cannabis is being legalized in more states, and more are sure to follow soon. Various measures are being introduced that could lead to votes for medical or recreational use in many states in the coming years. Cannabis users need to make sure they understand local laws for marijuana use. They also need to know whether or not they’re allowed to cultivate marijuana at home and, if so, what restrictions there may be. If marijuana cultivation is legal in your state, and you’re ready to start growing at home, check out the full grow guide below, and learn more about how to get started. 

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