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States Where Pot Is Legal

Pros and Cons

In the United States, marijuana is an illegal Schedule 1 drug. That puts it into the same class as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a form of it, Epidiolex, to treat seizures from two rare forms of epilepsy. It has also approved two man-made medicines based on the ingredients in marijuana. The two, dronabinol and nabilone, treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.

There is pressure from many people to reclassify marijuana to a Schedule II drug, such as Ritalin or oxycodone. The DEA has resisted that, but has agreed to support additional research on using marijuana to treat other diseases.

The people in many states grew tired of waiting for federal approval. In 2012, the voters in Colorado and Washington approved recreational use of marijuana. They licensed, regulated, and taxed its sale and distribution. In the following years, other states followed suit. Many only allowed it as a prescribed drug to treat medical conditions. In those states, users must have a doctor’s order to buy it. Some also require an identification card to allow users to possess the drug.

Each state has different laws, regulations, and policies. But they all enjoy the benefits, and suffer from the disadvantages, of making marijuana legal.

States Where Pot Is Legal

Eleven states and the District of Columbia had legalized marijuana for recreational and medical use before the November 2020 election. Here is how much each one earned in tax revenue from marijuana sales.

  1. Alaska — $39.5 million
  2. California — $2.75 billion
  3. Colorado — $1.56 billion
  4. District of Columbia — $17.7 million
  5. Illinois — $91.1 million
  6. Maine — $83.4 million
  7. Massachusetts — $106 million
  8. Michigan — $633 million
  9. Nevada — $102.6 million
  10. Oregon — $777 million
  11. Vermont — $15.9 million
  12. Washington — $1 billion

Four more states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—legalized recreational marijuana use through voter approval of ballot propositions or constitutional amendments in November 2020.

States Where Medical Marijuana Is Legal

Thirty-six states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Depending on the state, it can be used to treat symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s, anorexia, schizophrenia, and cachexia. But research only supports its effectiveness to reduce chronic pain, nausea associated with chemotherapy, and tight muscles from multiple sclerosis. Other research shows it might also help reduce anxiety and inflammation, kill cancer cells, and stimulate appetite.

For example, in Arizona, users can own up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana with written certification from a physician. It can be legally prescribed to treat symptoms of cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, and Hepatitis C.

Here are figures for the revenue that some of those states took in from marijuana sales.

  1. Arizona — $406.6 million
  2. Connecticut — $50 million
  3. Delaware — $7.1 million
  4. Florida — $17.4 million
  5. Hawaii — $17.2 million
  6. Minnesota — $9.6 million
  7. Montana — $31.7 million
  8. New Hampshire — $7.2 million
  9. New Jersey — $37.1 million
  10. New Mexico — $54.2 million
  11. New York — $40.9 million
  12. Rhode Island — $60.2 million

Pros and Cons

Creates higher revenue for states.

Creates jobs in nurseries and dispensaries.

Additional costs including regulation, licensing, and administration costs to monitor the sector.

Creates public safety and health concerns.

Discourages investors because it is still illegal on the federal level.

Legalization of marijuana does create higher revenue for states. But much of the additional revenue generated goes to additional costs. For example, Colorado saw a 2% increase in revenues according to a Federal Reserve study. But it spends 72% of the marijuana sales tax on costs. These include regulation, licensing, and administration costs to monitor the sector. Colorado also spends these funds on law enforcement, substance abuse programs, and health education.

Marijuana legalization also creates public safety and health concerns. After legalization, marijuana usage has increased. As a result, hospitalization related to the drug’s use has also risen. So have calls to poison control mentioning the drug. One reason is that the strength of the active ingredients in marijuana products isn’t regulated. Users can get widely different dosages from batch to batch of brownies or lollipops.

Marijuana has some of the same chemicals as tobacco. It could lead to bronchitis and other lung conditions. The National Institute on Drug Abuse considers marijuana an addictive drug.

In Colorado, marijuana use among those age 18 to 25 more than doubled. It rose from 5% in 2006 to 12% in 2014. A national study reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that those between 12 and 20 years old were 5% more likely to try marijuana for the first time. Some studies show it could affect mental development for these young people. Fortunately, it did not increase teenage use of alcohol, cocaine, or heroin.

Nationwide, the number of workers and job applicants who tested positive for marijuana climbed 10% in 2018, to 2.3%.

The NBER report did say that legalized marijuana use increased the likelihood of adult binge drinking by 6% to 9%. The combined use of marijuana and alcohol increased by 15% to 22%.

Another advantage of legalization is job creation in marijuana nurseries and dispensaries. Colorado saw a 5.4% increase in job gains after it legalized marijuana. But the marijuana industry only contributed a small portion of that gain. The largest growth came from the hotel and restaurant industry.

The biggest disadvantage for states is that marijuana is still illegal on the federal level. That discourages investors. Companies can’t take advantage of initial public offerings to get more cash to grow. They can’t nationalize, thereby benefiting from economies of scale.

The Bottom Line

Thirty-six states in the United States have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Of these, 15 states also allow recreational use.

As a new industry, the legalization of marijuana has increased revenue for these states and has helped open new employment opportunities. People sick of cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, and the like now can have easy access to pot. Marijuana relieves them of pain and many other symptoms.

But its contributions as an industry fall short in that they do not outweigh costs. The state finds itself having to pay for new necessities such drug monitoring, licensing, and education, among others. As legalization allowed an increase in the drug’s use, hospitals also saw a rise in cases from the usage. Ingredients in marijuana products have yet to see strict regulation. In addition, the business of pot has limited expansion potential given that it is not a legal substance nationwide.

Even though marijuana is illegal according to national law, 36 states have legalized it. Here are the pros and cons.

Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana in the U.S.

  • M.B.A., California State University, Long Beach
  • B.A., Journalism and Nonfiction Writing, University of California, Los Angeles

According to a 2017 poll, 52% percent of American adults have tried marijuana at some point in their lives.   The dried blossom of cannabis sativa and cannabis indica plants, marijuana has been used for centuries as an herb, a medicine, hemp for rope-making, and as a recreational drug.

Did You Know?

Before the 20th century, cannabis plants in the U.S. were relatively unregulated, and marijuana was a common ingredient in medicines.

As of 2018, the U.S. government claims the right to—and does—criminalize the growing, selling, and possession of marijuana in all states. This right is not given to them by the Constitution but by the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in their 2005 ruling in Gonzales v. Raich. This case upheld the right of the federal government to ban marijuana use in all states in spite of the dissenting voice of Justice Clarence Thomas, who stated: “By holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution’s limits on federal power.”

Brief History

Recreational use of marijuana was thought to have been introduced in the U.S. early in the 20th century by immigrants from Mexico. In the 1930s, marijuana was linked publicly in several research studies, and via a famed 1936 film named Reefer Madness, to crime, violence, and anti-social behavior.

Many believe that objections to marijuana first rose sharply as part of the U.S. temperance movement against alcohol. Others claim that marijuana was initially demonized partly due to fears of the Mexican immigrants associated with the drug.

In the 21st century, marijuana is illegal in the U.S. ostensibly due to moral and public health reasons and because of continuing concern over violence and crime associated with the production and distribution of the drug.

In spite of federal regulations, eleven states have voted to legalize the growth, use, and distribution of marijuana within their borders and many others are debating whether or not to do the same.  

Pros and Cons of Legalization

Primary reasons in support of legalizing marijuana include:

Social Reasons

  • Prohibition of marijuana is unwarranted government intrusion into individual freedom of choice.
  • Marijuana is no more harmful to a person’s health than alcohol or tobacco, which are both legal and widely used as well as regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
  • Marijuana has proven medical benefits for patients suffering from a host of ailments and diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and glaucoma.  
  • Crime and violence, both within the U.S. and at the U.S.-Mexico border, are greatly increased due to illegal selling and buying of marijuana. Legalization would logically end the need for such criminal behavior.

Law Enforcement Reasons

  • According to the FBI Unified Crime Statistics, marijuana accounted for 3.3% of sale/manufacturing drug crime arrests and 36.8% of possession and use drug crime arrests in 2018.   As a result, marijuana arrests place a significant burden on our judicial system.
  • Drug busts of youth for marijuana offenses often carry harsh penalties that can cause undue social harm with lifelong consequences.

Fiscal Reasons

  • Marijuana is one of America’s top-selling agricultural products. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, combined four-year sales of marijuana for that state since it legalized cannabis in 2014 has now topped $7.6 billion.  
  • “. mainstream pundits like The Blaze’s Glenn Beck and political commentator Jack Cafferty have publicly questioned the billions spent each year fighting the endless war against drugs,” per the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.

If marijuana were legalized and regulated, the industry could generate up to $106.7 billion annually for local, state, and federal governments. Some estimates say that the government spends $29 billion annually on drug prohibition alone and that this too could be saved by legalizing marijuana.  

Primary reasons against legalizing marijuana include:

Social Reasons

  • In much the same way that pro-life advocates seek to make abortion illegal for all based on moral grounds, so too do some Americans wish to make marijuana illegal because they believe its use is immoral.
  • Long-term or abusive use of marijuana can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.  
  • Second-hand smoke from marijuana can be harmful to others.
  • Many allege that regular marijuana use can lead to the use of harder, more harmful drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Law Enforcement Reasons

  • Some opponents of legalizing marijuana believe that individuals involved in illegal buying and selling of the drug are more likely than average to be involved in other crimes and that society is safer with marijuana offenders incarcerated.
  • Law enforcement agencies don’t want to be construed as supporting drug use.

There are no significant fiscal reasons against the U.S. legalizing marijuana.

Legal Background

The following are milestones of federal marijuana enforcement in U.S. history:

  • Prohibition, 1919 to 1933: As the use of marijuana became popular in response to alcohol prohibition, conservative anti-drug campaigners railed against the “Marijuana Menace,” linking the drug to crime, violence, and other bad behaviors.
  • 1930, Federal Bureau of Narcoticsestablished: By 1931, 29 states had criminalized marijuana.  
  • Uniform State Narcotic Act of 1932: This act pushed the states, rather than federal authorities, to regulate narcotics.
  • Marijuana Tax Act of 1937: People who sought certain medical benefits of marijuana could now do so freely, provided they paid an excise tax.
  • 1944, New York Academy of Medicine: The esteemed institution bucked current thinking by putting out a report finding that marijuana does not “induce violence, insanity or sex crimes.”
  • Narcotics Control Act of 1956: This piece of legislation set mandatory prison sentences and fines for drug offenses, including for marijuana.
  • 1960s Counter-Culture Movement: U.S. marijuana use grew rapidly during this time. Studies commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson concluded that “marijuana use did not induce violence.”
  • 1970: Congress repealed mandatory penalties for drug offenses. Marijuana was differentiated from other drugs. Per PBS, “It was widely acknowledged that the mandatory minimum sentences of the 1950s had done nothing to eliminate the drug culture that embraced marijuana use throughout the 60s. “
  • 1973, Drug Enforcement Agency: President Nixon created the DEA to enforce the controlled substances regulations and laws of the United States.
  • Oregon Decriminalization Bill of 1973: In spite of federal regulations, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana.
  • 1976, Conservative Christian Groups: Led by Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, rising conservative groups lobbied for stricter marijuana laws. The coalition grew powerful, leading to the 1980s “War on Drugs.”
  • The Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act of 1978: By passing this act in its legislature, New Mexico became the first state in the Union to legally recognize the medical value of marijuana.
  • Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: Pushed for and signed by President Reagan, the act raised penalties for marijuana offenses and established harsh mandatory “three strikes” sentencing laws.
  • 1989, New “War on Drugs”: In his Presidential Address of September 5, George H.W. Bush outlined a new strategy to combat the evils of drug use and trafficking, led by Bill Benett, the nation’s first-ever drug policy director.
  • 1996 in California: Voters legalized marijuana use for cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and other patients, via a doctor’s prescription.
  • 1996 to 2018, nationwide: The war on drugs continued, yet marijuana was either legalized for consumption, legalized for medical use, or decriminalized in 42 states.
  • February 25, 2009: Attorney General Eric Holder announced that “federal agents will now target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state laws,” which effectively meant that if a state had legalized marijuana, the Obama administration would not override state law.
  • Cole Memorandum of 2013: US Attorney General James M. Cole conveys to federal prosecutors that they should not expend resources prosecuting state-legal marijuana businesses, except in the case of one of eight law enforcement priorities, such as distributing pot to minors or across state lines.
  • 2018: Vermont became the first state to legalize recreational cannabis by way of the state legislature.
  • January 4, 2018: Attorney Jeff Sessions rescinds a trio of Obama-era rules, including the Holder and Cole memorandums, which had adopted a policy of non-intervention in marijuana-friendly states.

Moves to Legalize

On June 23, 2011, a federal bill to fully legalize marijuana was introduced in the House by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA.) Said Congressman Frank to the Christian Science Monitor of the bill:

“Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom. I do not advocate urging people to smoke marijuana, neither do I urge them to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke tobacco, but in none of these cases do I think prohibition enforced by criminal sanctions is good public policy.”

Another bill to decriminalize marijuana across the country was introduced on February 5, 2013, by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Neither of the two bills made it out of the House.

The states, on the other hand, have taken matters into their own hands. By 2018, nine states and Washington, D.C. had legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults. Thirteen additional states have decriminalized marijuana, and a full 33 allow its use in medical treatment.   By January 1, 2018, legalization was on the docket for another 12 states; now, the total is 11 states and Washington, D.C.

Federal Push Back

To date, no U.S. president has supported the decriminalization of marijuana, not even President Barack Obama, who, when asked at a March 2009 online town hall meeting about marijuana legalization, laughingly demurred,

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience.” He then continued, “But, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.” This in spite of the fact that Obama told the crowd at his 2004 appearance at Northwestern University, “I think the war on drugs has been a failure, and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws.”

Almost one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a January 4, 2018 memo to United States Attorneys, rescinded the Obama-era policies discouraging federal prosecution of marijuana cases in those states where the drug was legal. This move outraged many pro-legalization advocates on both sides of the aisle, including conservative political activists Charles and David Koch, whose general counsel, Mark Holden, blasted both Trump and Sessions for the move. Roger Stone, President Trump’s former campaign adviser, called the move by Sessions a “cataclysmic mistake.”

If any president were to publicly support the nationwide decriminalization of marijuana, he or she would likely do so by granting states the jurisdiction to decide this issue, just as states decide marriage laws for their residents.

Here are some pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, both for medicinal purposes and for recreational use.