Cannabis law is changing rapidly almost everywhere in the United States. The drug is now legal for any use in four states plus the District of Columbia, while another 33 states allow some form of medical marijuana.
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about cannabis and federal law.
Yes and no. Yes, cannabis has a slight tendency to cause chemical addiction. But this dependence is neither as severe nor as common as addiction to alcohol, heroin, cigarettes, and other common recreational drugs. Roughly 9 percent of long-term marijuana users find they cannot stop using the drug even when it negatively impacts their lives, while rates for other addictive substances are much higher.
Only about 7 percent of Americans have ingested cannabis within the past month. Far more people use alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana is the most popular illicit drug, but it doesn’t come close to the popularity of legal substances. Only about 5 million people, 1.6 percent of the U.S. population, use cannabis daily.
Yes. Regular use rates have climbed from less than 6 percent of Americans in 2007 to about 7 percent today. That growth roughly tracks the increasing legalization of cannabis in the United States.
The term “legalization” refers to decisions by state governments to allow and regulate the cultivation, sale, and possession of marijuana for recreation. Four states, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, have moved to legalize, as has Washington, D.C.
Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of jail time, violators face only a small civil fine. The drug remains illegal, however, with cultivation and sale treated as crimes.
Medical marijuana laws allow the cultivation and use of cannabis only for medicinal purposes. Some states permit “whole plant” medical marijuana, which includes use of any part of the plant, including the intoxicating chemical THC. Other states allow only use of non-intoxicating CBD.
Despite common conceptions, the vast majority of federal and state prisoners in America are behind bars for crimes that don’t involve cannabis. Less than 1 percent of state inmates are first-time marijuana offenders while more than 99 percent of federal inmates jailed on drug convictions are there for serious trafficking offenses. Still, those numbers add up to a lot of Americans imprisoned and tagged with permanent records for no crime more serious than burning a plant. What’s more, there are deep racial disparities in arrest rates, meaning black people suffer the worst consequences of the war on marijuana.
Congress and the federal government have begun to warm to the idea of marijuana reform, but the drug remains strictly illegal for any use under federal statute. The Obama administration takes the official position that cannabis is dangerous, addictive, and medically useless, despite growing evidence to the contrary.
The federal government takes conflicting positions on medical cannabis. Congress has enacted laws that protect patients in states where MMJ is legal, but federal law enforcement agencies refuse to acknowledge marijuana’s medical usefulness or legitimate patient rights. These positions are likely to liberalize as reform continues to spread.
There is already considerable evidence that legalization is hurting violent Mexican drug cartels. The amount of brick marijuana flowing over the border has declined substantially as Americans turn to legal, locally grown cannabis instead. The cartels have other options, including the lucrative heroin trade, so they’re by no means out of the game. But reform is clearly having its intended effect.
No. There is no state, federal, or other jurisdiction in the United States that allows public consumption of marijuana in any form, including edibles and other infused products. All states that allow recreational cannabis use have enacted laws banning public consumption as a civil offense, while public use in other states or on federal land is a crime.
This depends on how old you are and where you live. Adults over 21 may grow their own limited marijuana supply for any use in Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. Washington State, which also allows legal cannabis, prohibits home gardens. Medical marijuana patients may legally grow marijuana in many states, but rules vary widely. Only California and its medical marijuana system allow cultivation of more than six plants at one time.
Absolutely not. Driving high is roughly 12 times safer than driving drunk, but it is still twice as dangerous as getting behind the wheel sober. Penalties in all 50 states are stiff. Different states also apply different rules, often confusing legal standards to determine impairment, so motorists in certain parts of the country put themselves at special risk by driving while high or while smoking marijuana.
Marijuana use leaves potentially long-lasting chemical traces in the form of inactive THC metabolites. These metabolites bind to fat molecules in the body, meaning evidence of THC can linger in the bloodstream for hours, days, even weeks. Heavier use can usually be detected longer, so chronic smokers should quit at least 30 days before any drug test.
Cannabis is used to treat a wide range of medical problems. The best known are glaucoma and nausea, treatments that were discovered half a century ago. But marijuana is also useful in alleviating the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, ALS, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, inflammation, depression, epilepsy, dementia, PTSD – and the list goes on.
Most of the United States allows some form of medical marijuana. The majority of these states permit possession and use of “whole plant” cannabis, which can include intoxicating levels of THC. The rest have legalized only non-intoxicating strains with high levels of another chemical, CBD. Some states require home grows, others require patients to buy their medicine from retail stores, and still others allow both. A few states, meanwhile, ban smoking of the drug but not vaporizing, eating, or other methods of consumption.
Four states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska – allow the recreational purchase, possession, and use of marijuana by adults over 21, as does the District of Columbia. Of these, all but Washington State permit home cannabis gardens. Recreational pot shops remain illegal in Washington, D.C., but are allowed elsewhere.
All Americans stand to reap the rewards of legalization, but certain people and institutions are especially likely to benefit from reform: marijuana users, of course, but also police, prosecutors, politicians, labor unions, educators, prison guards, entrepreneurs, schoolchildren, scientists, voters, and just about every other group with an interest in the future of law, government, or the economy.
Above all, smoking cannabis is dramatically safer than smoking nicotine products. Tobacco use is responsible for nearly half a million deaths in the United States each year, while even lifelong marijuana use has never caused a fatality. This may be counter-intuitive, as cannabis smoke can feel harder on the lungs, but regular tobacco smokers actually inhale far more smoke than even the heaviest marijuana users.
Synthetic marijuana is a lab-made drug designed to mimic the effects of real cannabis. It goes by “K2,” “Spice,” and many other unofficial ‘brand’ names, and it is extremely dangerous. Although synthetic cannabis produces intense euphoria, the experience is very different from a real THC high. Hazardous effects include rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, severe psychosis, and even death. K2 is most popular among teenagers and homeless people, as it is cheap, easy to find, and mostly undetectable.