The Current State of Legal Cannabis In the U.S.

To anyone not living in the U.S, the complex framework of individual states, and the conflicting nature of federal and state law make the legal landscape challenging to understand. Moreover, at the centre of that confusion is none other than our favourite, multi-talented plant—cannabis.

With recreational and medical marijuana now legal in dozens of states, but still prohibited under federal law, we attempt to unravel the situation and find out how the legal cannabis industry is developing. Whether you fully understand America’s legal system or not, the countries role is significant, as their decision making could have a global influence on the legal cannabis market.


To build a picture of how American cannabis legalisation has progressed in recent years, we first need to take it back to basics. American states are geographically defined areas that can decide their own fiscal and legislative authority. They operate one level below the federal government, but outside of the U.S, states are not recognised as separate legal entities. Federal law, as decided by the federal government, is the law that all Americans must abide by. However, at the state level, there may be amendments to legislation, and that creates a grey area—an area in which the legal cannabis market is currently operating.

For all intents and purposes, cannabis is still illegal at a federal level in the U.S—the government doesn’t currently approve the use of marijuana. Thankfully on the back of positive medical studies, and support from the public, states have been able to decide their own stance on the situation. Think of it as a stopgap that means the government doesn’t have to make its own mind up (yet), but it still allows individuals to buy, and use cannabis either recreationally or for medicinal purposes.


The number of states permitting the use of cannabis has risen slowly since California became the first state to do so in 1996. Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states, and recreational cannabis is legal in 10 states. Those figures are likely to rise, as data¹ shows that over half of Americans support the legalisation of marijuana and several more states are already considering the decision.

The next logical step would be every state permitting the use of cannabis; something many feel isn’t too far away. The process isn’t a complete whitewash though, as North Dakota recently rejected proposals to legalise marijuana.

All of these developments are incredibly positive for the legal cannabis industry, but as we alluded to earlier, any business, person, or entity associated with marijuana is still forced to operate in a legality grey area because, despite what states decide, federal law still prohibits the use of cannabis. There is also the factor of geographical limitations as cannabis cannot cross state lines. Even if two adjacent states both legalised recreational cannabis, you would not be allowed to cross territorial borders with it—complicated is one word!


It all comes back to the federal government, and whether they decide to reclassify cannabis so that it becomes legal to consume, buy and grow. At present cannabis is viewed as a schedule one substance under the Controlled Substances Act and the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That puts cannabis it in the same league as heroin and ecstasy. While there has been some movement on the situation, it is more of a sidestep, then direct action. President Trump recently signed a farmers bill that permitted the legal cultivation of hemp. Farmers will still have to adhere to strict regulation, but considering the hemp plant belongs to the same species as cannabis sativa L, in theory, it is an inch towards legalisation.

The difficulty faced by the federal government is they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The American people appear to be advocates of cannabis legalisation, and at a state level, that assumption holds true. However, the U.S is also part of the United Nations, a global organisation that plays a role in international policy. The UN facilitated the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which influences the policies of its member states. That doesn’t mean that America couldn’t legalise cannabis, just that, more often than not, they would follow the guidance of the United Nations and its representatives first.


Herein lies the reality of the impact that America could have on the legal cannabis market. As a first world superpower and a prominent member of the United Nations, federal legalisation of cannabis would have ramifications across the world.

Several other parties, including the World Health Organisation, are already involved in talks regarding cannabis, its safety, and potential reclassification. Add in a move by America to push for reclassification and approve the substance at the federal level, and it could well be the catalyst that sparks a global revolution.

Of course, while this is all speculation, the reality is not that far removed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently asking the public their opinion before a proposal is put to the UN in the next few months. With several analysts and advocates claiming cannabis legalisation is a matter of when not if, could America be the nation to tip the balance? It certainly seems like the country is heading that way, despite its complicated legal hierarchy.


1. Pew Research Center. Fact Tank.

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