The Real Facts About State Vs. Federal Marijuana Laws

marijuanaIn the marijuana news of the day, activists for the legalization of marijuana find themselves in opposition to a group they should be calling allies: Big Marijuana.

Advocates for the medical marijuana industry say that ballot initiatives and legislation that seek broad legalization of the recreational use of marijuana are a serious threat to their current business model.

Their resistance is less surprising when you take a look at the numbers. Medical marijuana is only legal in 18 states but is nonetheless more than a billion-dollar-a-year industry, with potential for rapid growth, which will be realized if the 42 remaining states follow the legalization movement’s early pattern of medicinal decriminalization before legalization.

Many non-industry related proponents of legalization say that medical marijuana was meant as a stepping stone, a way for society to see the benevolence and even usefulness of a drug it had become accustomed to vilifying. The stepping stone, however, was never meant to become a roadblock, especially not at the expense of social progress.

For many lay citizens, these debates fail to provide essential background information about marijuana legalization: namely, what is legal, where, and why.

Prohibition, round one

In 1937, following a sea-change in public opinion toward marijuana (a period which coincided with marijuana prohibition in the UK, and state-by-state prohibition), the first individual was arrested and punished for selling marijuana in the US. While many events led up to this period of prohibition, it is important to note some important points.

First, marijuana had been widely used and was exceedingly popular in the medical community, and had been for decades. The proof: it was an annual agricultural industry of 60,000 pounds, all of which was doled out pharmaceutically.

Second, it wasn’t until the majority of states had imposed prohibitions on the sale and use of marijuana that the federal government, under considerable pressure from states as well as public figures like William Randolph Hearst (an outspoken advocate of prohibition), that the federal government took any action to prohibit the sale of cannabis whatsoever.

Third, the action finally proposed was a mere marijuana tax, which curbed production of marijuana. This caused prices to rise and prescription levels to drop. The Marijuana Tax Act did not prohibit the ownership or sale of cannabis.

Fourth, the American Medical Association opposed the tax, and supported continued research into the benefits of marijuana for medicinal uses.

Finally, the first man arrested for selling was charged under the Marijuana Tax Act, not due to the criminalization of marijuana that had already occurred in his state of Colorado. He was arrested by the FBI.


The battle for legalization of marijuana has been raging ever since the 1930s prohibitions, from the War on Drugs to Nixon’s refusal to decriminalize regardless of a recommendation by the Shafer Commission. Today, the battle presumes the right to ingest cannabis, but questions who that right belongs to.

States forged a path

While many are confused by the arrogance of states that seemingly vote to repeal federal prohibitions on illegal substances, a look back at history helps to clarify the issue, and may also help to explain the “soft approach” the Obama administration seems to have taken toward new state laws that permit marijuana’s recreational use. States forge the path, and the federal government eventually follows.

Most recently, states with pro-marijuana laws like Washington and Colorado have made history and headlines by moving from decriminalization to full legalization, and no less than 23 states hold at least some legal provisions for growing, selling, and possessing cannabis. Of the states that do, half provide for medicinal use and general decriminalization simultaneously.

The federal government follows

According to the federal government, marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled Substance. Many thought that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had made the federal position clear: federal resources would not be used to chase down people who are complying with state marijuana laws, but Washington won’t tolerate drug trafficking.

That is, of course until this month when four Seattle dispensaries were raided by the FDA.

In states where current marijuana laws remain unchanged, the federal government’s “soft approach” is often considered as criminally derelict as the act of smoking itself. In Seattle, dispensary operators who say they were “humiliated” by the government raid, wish the feds would attend to more pressing business.

Ultimately, the federal government has been tight-lipped about the validity of either side’s argument, toeing the line until a more cohesive mainstream position emerges and proves that marijuana legalization may be just another topic polarizing an already divided nation.

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