Is Marijuana Really Legal? Everything You Need To Know About Cannabis Laws

Oct 28, 2020 | Cannabis Laws & News

Now that the majority of the States in the US have legalized marijuana, recreationally or medically, laws have relatively loosened up on use and possession. But since the plant is still banned federally – that doesn’t mean blurred lines don’t still exist. 

As the legalization of marijuana has swept the nation, beginner to veteran consumers are often still asking themselves – is marijuana really legal? That’s why we’ve compiled the complete guide to everything you need to know about cannabis laws and cannabis legalization. 

What Is Legalization? 

Before we begin, let’s first review what legalization actually is. By definition, the noun ‘legalization’ refers to – 

The action of making something that was previously illegal permissible by law.

Since cannabis was banned in 1937 upon the signing of the Marihuana Tax Act, the term is synonymous with states reversing the illegality of use. Legalization can reference the permission of consuming marijuana, for medical or recreational (21+ adult) use. Which of course, varies from state to state. 

What States Have Legalized Marijuana? 

So what states have legalized marijuana? Here’s the breakdown of where the 50 states currently lie for recreational and medical cannabis legalization:

  • 33 states have legalized medical cannabis 
  • 11 states have legalized recreational cannabis
  • 5 states will vote on legalization this November: 
    • Arizona – recreational
    • New Jersey – recreational
    • South Dakota – both recreational and medical 
    • Montana – recreational
    • Mississippi – medical

But just because marijuana is legalized in specific states, the plant remains federally prohibited. This contradiction has led to a distinct grey area in cannabis laws, that leave consumers up in the air for feeling safe and lawful while consuming. 

State vs. Federal Legalization

State to state laws concerning cannabis have progressively changed to fit the growing support of use. But federally, possessing, consuming, and distributing cannabis is still a punishable offense under the Controlled Substance Act. 

Since the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution declares federal law as ‘the supreme Law of the Land’, the divide causes confusion to say the least. Considering citizens have the right to consume legally in certain States, while simultaneously violating federal law. 

Congress and individual state representatives have actively sought to ‘clear the air’ of cannabis legalization confusion. Including the following key approvals that allow state laws to relatively reign supreme.  

  • In 2014, the US Congress approved an annual Justice Department appropriations bill rider that secured federal funds may not be used to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. 
  • In 2019, the House of Representatives passed an amendment that prevents federal interference with legalized state medical or adult-use marijuana businesses. 

The progress should help consumers feel more protected in their use, as long as they’re following state-to-state regulations. Since technically, federal permissions still allows for prosecution for criminal cannabis activity. 

Beyond consuming, and possessing personally, the differences in State vs. Federal legalization are also causing widespread issues in key areas for businesses to thrive. Like, banking, inter-state trade, taxes, and research. 

Legalization vs. Decriminalization

Another glaring hole in the system comes from legalization vs. decriminalization. So let’s also define decriminalization to fully understand the concept. By definition, the noun is the action or process of ceasing to treat something as illegal or as a criminal offense.

The logical thought would be legalization would offset decriminalization or a decrease in criminal offenses surrounding the new or reversed law. But, have marijuana-related arrests and punishments actually decreased with marijuana legalization? Or, the simple question being –  is marijuana really legal? 

As for the states who have legalized marijuana so far, here’s what the numbers show:

  • Cannabis infractions in Oregon, increased by 30% after legalization. Even those the use of underage consumers decreased. 
    • Prior to legalization in Oregon, arrest rates for African American youth were 50% more than the rates of Caucasian youth. After legalization, the discrepancy was reduced by 25%. 
  • In Washington, after legalization, there was a reduction in overall arrests. 
  • However, in contrast to Oregon, the racial disparity of arrests actually increased. With African Americans being arrested 5x more than Caucasians, after legalization
      • Charges in total for possession, cultivation, and distribution decreased by 80.1%
      • Court cases in total for possession, cultivation, and distribution decreased by 84.2%
      • From 2012 to 2015, arrests for possessions decreased from 2,488 to 22. 
      • In the last 4 years, distribution or intent to distribute have tripled.
      • Arrests for public consumption went from 100 to 250 annually, before showing a decline again. 
      • Racially, African Americans account for 90% of all marijuana-related arrests. 
    • In Texas, a rare decline in marijuana possession arrests occurred after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the cultivation, possession, and consumption of hemp. Arrests decreased by nearly 30% while local prosecutors also dropped hundreds of low-profile cannabis cases. 
      • Texas cannabis manufacturing arrests also decreased after hemp legalization, from 2,700 in 2018 to approximately 1,900 in 2019.
  • In Michigan, as of 2018 African Americans were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana versus Caucasians.
  • In California, after recreational legalization, there was a 27% decline in marijuana felony arrests. 
    • Looking at race, 42% of the arrests were Hispanics, 22% were African Americans and 21% were Caucasians.
    • In 2019, there was an increase in racial disparity as African Americans were 4.47 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than Caucasians. This was an increase from 2018 when African Americans were 4.05 times more likely to be arrested than Caucasians.
    • Similarly, Hispanics were 2 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana versus Caucasians, another increase from 2018 to 2019.  

While arrest record information is still being analyzed for newly legalized states, overall marijuana arrests are rising nationally. In 2018, the FBI released that arrests steadily increased from 653,249 in 2016 to 663,367 by 2018. That’s an arrest every 48 seconds, per year. Only adding to the fear of many ‘legal’ marijuana consumers, who believe they’re following their state-regulated laws. 

Another peculiar topic for legalization vs. decriminalization comes from the numbers for asset forfeitures. As of 2019, marijuana-related forfeitures still accounted for 40% of all illicit ‘drugs’ overall. Seizing nearly $661 million in assets from the industry alone, nearly 5x more than heroin and meth. Which is clearly not legalized, in any way, shape, or form. This information alone is pushing major groups to advocate, and seek reform. 

Will Legalization Last? 

Now that we know more about what states have legalized marijuana, and continued arrests, it begs the question to be asked – will legalization last? So far all signs point to yes considering two-thirds of the American population reported supporting marijuana legalization in 2019. What the Federal, and State legislators will do with that information will depend heavily on the institution’s agendas coming out of COVID-19 and election cycles. 

Good news could be on the horizon, however, as the SAFE Banking Act was passed by the house this past year. Unfortunately, it awaits further progress for the Senate being in session more regularly. The legislation was even stuffed into a Coronavirus Relief Bill this August, shedding light on the issue again. While the language only addresses banking services for cannabis versus consumption or possession, it could serve as a pivotal turning point for future legalization. 

Like the progress of the STATES Act, or The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act that was introduced in 2019. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representatives David Joyce (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) drafted the bill to legalize all marijuana-related activities at a federal level, as long as permitted by the state law. By directly amending the Controlled Substance Act that once banned the plant. 

Marijuana on the Move 

For the last several years, it’s safe to say marijuana legalization has been on the up and up. Now more than ever, cannabis legalization is in more states than not with even more seeking to legalize this November election cycle. While lighting up legally might still feel peculiar to veteran and beginner consumers, knowing the laws surrounding the freedom can help ease any questioning qualms. 

Stay up to date with the latest cannabis laws, as we’ll continue working to keep you informed.

About The Author

<a href="" target="_self">Courtney Trzos</a>

Courtney Trzos

To Courtney, it’s always 420 somewhere… After attending Michigan State University and working in communications for over 10 years, she took her passion for cannabis, professionally. In 2017, Courtney began freelancing as a writer for cannabis brands across the globe, promoting the therapeutic and recreational use of the plant, while helping her partner cultivate crops full-time, and learning more about the industry from a seed-to-sale perspective. Get in touch with her and follow her journey at