U.S Laws on Marijuana

While states in the United States have become amenable to the trending desire for the use of marijuana to be legalized and have began to act in line with that desire by enacting laws that decriminalizes the use of marijuana at least for medical purposes as it is with majority of the states, the Federal government in the United states has held it grounds and stuck to its guns in regarding marijuana as illegal and also criminal. The drug is viewed as a controlled substance that has the extreme potential for abuse. The U.S department of Justice however in response to the states enacting laws that decriminalizes the use of marijuana for medicinal and adult recreational purposes has stated that it won’t try to block the attempts at legalizing the drugs on a state level through the courts, just as long as the states make laws that check sales of these drugs to underage persons, and also ensure that interstate movement of drugs and drug related gang wars are contained. 

The criminalization of marijuana is enabled by the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 which places it in such an unenviable position along with the likes of Heroin and LSD which also has a high potential for abuse. Persons who argue in favor of the criminalization place emphasis on the fact that the substance is a gateway drug which could open the floodgate for the use of even harder substance while on the other hand, persons on the other side place as their argument the fact that the use of marijuana even when it is overdosed does not lead to a lethal effect on the victim and also the fact that the drug is not physically addictive. Furthermore, there have been studies that show that marijuana cannot be considered a gateway drug. 

There has been many purported reasons given for the federal government’s stance on the issue of the legalization of the use of marijuana, one of such reasons was the fact that it was a substance of foreign origin and the lack of adequate knowledge concerning its effect enabled the classification of the substance as a drug for concern which resulted in the enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which initially made the possession and sale of marijuana by individuals an illegal act, it also made the use of marijuana for medical purposes very expensive with a huge tax burden, and very tough punitive measures against defaulters. The tax act was struck down in 1969 when the Supreme Court agreed that to register as required by the act would reveal an intent to possess and this was self incriminating which was in violation of the fifth amendment, thus the Controlled substance Act was enacted as an update and despite the report of the Shafer Commission which debunked rumours concerning the plant and recommended that the substance be decriminalized, the federal government retained its illegality. It was stated that the Administration of the U.S government in place at that time set up the committee with the intent to ensure that there was no clear demarcation between the use of Marijuana and other hard drugs. The report by Shafer commission advised that the commercial distribution of the drug should be prohibited, however it further advised that there should be no criminal punishment to the incidences of possession and personal use, or even distribution that was done for non-profit purposes. The report stated that ““No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking…. No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use”. The report did not stop there it continued and stated that “The weight of the evidence is that marihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior”. Despite these reports, the use of marijuana was conclusively considered as an illegal drug and it remained a criminal act to be in possession and to distribute the substance. The CSA act sought to congregate all the substances which were hitherto regulated by already existing federal laws into one out of the five schedules of which marijuana is placed on the first schedule along with the likes of Heroin, Ecstasy and GHB. The substance is classed in the first schedule on the basis of it’s high potential for abuse. This act also makes provision for the process of removing any of the substances listed in the schedule, and also the process of moving a substance from one schedule to another. This process may be commenced by any of the following:

  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)  
  • Department of Health and Human Services 
  • A drug manufacturer 
  • A medical or pharmaceutical society or association 
  • Public interest groups with focus on drug abuse 
  • State or local government agency 
  • A citizen

Despite the Federal government’s stance on the use of Marijuana, states have began to legalize and to decriminalize the use of this substance, especially since the last years of the 20th century. This move started with the California voters leading the vanguard in 1996, and also in 1998, other states began to follow suit including Alaska, Oregon and Washington; however these states restricted their use to just medical purposes, and this is the case with over 40 states in the United States. The atmosphere shifted even more radically with states like Colorado and Washington legalizing the use of marijuana for adult recreational purposes in 2012, Other states like Alaska and Oregon immediately joined the band-wagon in 2014 and in 2016, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada followed, the list continued with Vermont and Michigan in 2018 and illinois in 2019. 

There are however different types of policies and laws guiding legislation on marijuana and they include:

  • Prohibition and Criminalization: This would entail any activity using the substance as illegal and criminally punishable by law. 
  • Decriminalization: In this situation, the heavy criminalization is removed and the substance is treated mildly and instead of criminal punishment, the result may just be civil fines.
  • Medical Legislation: In this case, the laws can be made that allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes only.
  • Full Legalisation: This would involve a total legalization of the substance, removing it from the list of controlled substances and enacting new laws to guide it’s legal production, use and sales. 

There are some benefits that are associated with the decriminalization and the legalization of the substance and they include the fact that it will reduce drastically the cost of enforcing drug laws, and also the cost of accommodating and feeding inmates who are incarcerated from non-violent drug related crimes. It would also go without saying that decriminalizing marijuana would result in millions of dollars added to the economy, there would be an increase in jobs, there would be a reduction in the incidences of drug related gang wars, it would also reduce the allegations of using marijuana as a way of targeting black Americans. In addition, the use and support for the use of Marijuana has gained popularity with the most of American citizens; a study conducted shows that over 65% of America’s voting population favour the legalization of marijuana for Adult use and over 90% are in support of the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

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