According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana is the most popular illicit drug, and more than 22 million people over the age of 12 reported using it in the prior 30-day period. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana in some form; however, neither recreational nor medicinal marijuana use is recognized or protected under federal law, and the federal government can prosecute individuals who are otherwise protected under state laws.

Navigating the laws of legalization is challenging because they vary from state to state, and the legalization of marijuana is a contentious issue in general for groups around the country. This article will explore legalization and the laws against it and compare the advantages of both.

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Where Is It Legal and Illegal?

Legalization

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means it is one of the most controlled substances under federal law. As a result, there is little empirical evidence of its efficacy for treating various diseases and conditions. When researchers attempt to conduct legitimate studies on the potential health benefits of marijuana, they are met with miles of bureaucratic red tape. Regardless, the medicinal use of marijuana is currently legal in 25 states and Washington, DC. These states are:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

In addition, recreational marijuana is legal in Washington DC, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, and Washington.

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Laws against It

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. In 2013, the United States Department of Justice updated its enforcement policies by saying it expects states where marijuana is legal to enact regulation policies of their own, but the department reserved the right to challenge a state’s policies anytime it deems doing so is necessary.

Marijuana remains illegal in the states that are not listed above, and it is still possible to face felony charges for possession in any state, though the exact amount varies by state. For example, in Colorado, where recreational use is legal, it is a felony to possess more than 12 ounces of marijuana, and the possession of eight ounces or more is considered possession with the intent to distribute, which could also result in a felony conviction.

What Are the Benefits?

Legalization

Because few official studies have been conducted to determine the effect that marijuana can have on chronic pain or symptoms caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and AIDS, no one can say with certainty what the benefits of using marijuana are; however, there have proven to be certain advantages of legalizing the substance.

The most obvious benefit of legalizing marijuana is the effect it has on tax revenue. According to the Denver Post’s calculations of the Department of Revenue’s tax data, vendors in Colorado sold $699 million worth of marijuana in 2014, and the state saw $996.2 million in legal sales in 2015.

The Denver Post reports that cities all over the state are benefitting from this additional revenue. In Aurora, Colorado, they are using $1.5 million of the revenue from sales and fees of marijuana to address the city’s homeless issue, improve roads, and build a new recreation center. Adams County is spending more than $500,000 of their revenue on scholarships for low-income students. In short, the benefits of legalization are quickly becoming tangible across the state of Colorado.

In addition to providing supplementary streams of revenue, legalization also makes it easier to regulate the distribution of marijuana. Though stringent measures have not been enacted across the board for controlling the distribution of recreational marijuana yet, the American Public Health Association proposes a number of mechanisms to put in place, like certain taxes, age restrictions, and labeling requirements.

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Laws against It

The Drug Enforcement Agency places marijuana in the same classification of drugs as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methaqualone. Schedule I drugs are defined as substances that have a high potential for abuse and have no current medical use that is accepted. This is considered the most dangerous class of drugs, and drugs in this class can result in psychological or physical dependence. Drugs in this class also incur the harshest penalties under federal law.

In a society where marijuana is illegal, one of the greatest benefits is safety. As with any drug, there are dangers to abusing marijuana, and it can affect brain development over time. This side effect is especially problematic for young people who use marijuana while their brains are still developing. In addition, individuals who use it and then drive are putting more than just their own lives at risk. For example, researchers at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety identified a twofold increase in the number of fatal crashes involving marijuana after its legalization in Washington.

The Future of Marijuana

Now that marijuana is effectively legal in half the states, Americans are wondering if its federal decriminalization is inevitable. Though it may eventually happen, it is unlikely to occur anytime soon. The legal marijuana industry is still on shaky ground, and those who run dispensaries cannot advertise through the United States Postal Service or open a bank account for their business because federal law prohibits credit unions and banks from accepting money related to the sale of marijuana. More states may legalize it for medicinal or recreational purposes in the near future, but a nationwide legalization is unlikely as long as there are politically powerful groups who vehemently oppose it.