Decriminalization of non-medical cannabis in the United States

Cannabis laws in the United States1
  Jurisdiction with legalized cannabis.
  Jurisdiction with both medical and decriminalization laws.2
  Jurisdiction with legal psychoactive medical cannabis.
  Jurisdiction with legal non-psychoactive medical cannabis.
  Jurisdiction with decriminalized cannabis possession laws.
  Jurisdiction with cannabis prohibition.
---- 1 Includes laws which have not yet gone into effect.
2 Marked states have only legal non-psychoactive medical cannabis. ---- * Cannabis remains a Schedule I substance under federal law as of 2015.
* Some cities and Indian Reservations have legalization policies separate from their surrounding states.
* Cannabis is illegal in all Federal enclaves.

Decriminalization of non-medical cannabis in the United States has been attempted since the 1970s. As views on cannabis (or marijuana) have liberalized,[1] over half of the states have either approved it for medical use, decriminalized it for recreational use, or completely legalized it and approved it for retail sale.[2]

Between 1973 and 1978, eleven states decriminalized marijuana,[3] but after 1978 decriminalization in the U.S. ground to a halt. Not until 2001 did another state, Nevada, reduce marijuana possession to a misdemeanor. Since 2012, several other states have decriminalized and even legalized marijuana, ushering in a new chapter in the history of the decriminalization.[3]

Proponents of decriminalization argue that legalizing cannabis would free billions of dollars now used to prosecute users, provide several billions in tax revenue, free a substantial amount of law-enforcement resources which could be used to prevent more serious crimes, free a substantial amount of prison resources, and reduce the income of street gangs and organized crime who grow, import, process, and sell cannabis. Opponents argue that cannabis on the street today has a much higher percent of THC with a stronger drug effect, and that decriminalization will lead to usage, increased crime, and abuse of actual dangerous illicit drugs.

Cannabis remains on the Schedule I list of controlled substances under U.S. federal law. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Gonzales v. Raich that the Commerce Clause and Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution allowed the federal government to ban the use of cannabis (including medical use) because federal law is "supreme" and trumps state law to the contrary.


U.S. cannabis arrests by year.

Multiple states, counties, and cities have decriminalized cannabis. They may require drug education, or drug treatment in place of incarceration, and/or criminal charges for possession of small amounts of cannabis, or have made various cannabis offenses the lowest priority for law enforcement.

After the 1960s, an era characterized by widespread use of cannabis as a recreational drug, a wave of legislation in United States sought to reduce the penalties for the simple possession of cannabis, making it punishable by confiscation and a fine rather than imprisonment or more severe charges.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon commissioned a study on cannabis use from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.[4] The Commission found that the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition was suspect, and that the executive and legislative branches had a responsibility to obey the Constitution, even in the absence of a court ruling to do so. The Nixon administration did not implement the study's recommendations. However, the report has frequently been cited by individuals supporting removal of cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis possession.[5] By 1978 Alaska, California, Colorado, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Ohio had some form of cannabis decriminalization.[6] Certain cities and counties, particularly in California,[7] have adopted laws to further decriminalize cannabis.

In 1974, A Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. James O. Eastland on The Marijuana-hashish epidemic and its impact on United States security state that evidence accumulated by scientific researchers on cannabis had turned dramatically against this drug.[8][9]

Further legalization came in 2012 as two of three measures on the November 6 general ballot succeeded by wide margins. Washington Initiative 502 (2011) and Colorado Amendment 64 (2012) passed in the general election, as Oregon Ballot Measure 80 (2012) failed. Both of the successful measures restricted cannabis possession to adults aged 21 or over, restricted the total amount allowed and included a "DUID" provision against driving under the influence of marijuana. Both explicitly regulated cannabis much like hard liquor has been regulated since the end of prohibition in the United States, and explicitly avoided any changes to medical cannabis law. Initiative 502 defined marijuana based on its THC content and regulated all growth, processing and sale of marijuana under the Washington State Liquor Control Board, with strict restrictions against public consumption of marijuana. The Colorado measure, by contrast allowed private "home grows" in addition to commercial regulation. The failed Oregon law, by contrast, established a new state agency to regulate and tax cannabis, but was less specific and allowed possession for all adults, aged 18 or older.

Attempts to decriminalize cannabis

In recent history, there have been multiple unsuccessful attempts to decriminalize cannabis:

In 1974 Dr Robert DuPont began to publicly support decriminalization of cannabis, seeing cannabis as a health problem. But when DuPont left government he changed his mind and declared that "decriminalization is a bad idea".[10] Robert DuPont is still an active opponent of decriminalization of cannabis.[11]

In 2005, Gonzales v. Raich, ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution allowed the federal government to ban the use of cannabis, including medical use, federal law strike state law.


On November 7, 2000, voters in Alaska rejected Measure 5 by 60–40 percent. Measure 5 would have removed civil and criminal penalties for use of cannabis or other hemp products by adults age 18 and older and would have regulated the sale of cannabis similar to the sale of alcoholic beverages.[12]

On November 2, 2004, voters in Alaska rejected Measure 2 by 56–44 percent. Measure 2 would have prompted the state legislature to tax and regulate cannabis, and would have removed criminal penalties for cannabis use by adults aged 21 and older.[13]

On November 4, 2014, voters in Alaska approved Measure 2 by 52-48 percent. As a result of its passage, the measure will allow people age 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants. It will also make the manufacture, sale and possession of marijuana paraphernalia legal. These changes will be implemented at the state level; however, these acts will still remain illegal under federal law.


In January 2011, ``Republican first-year Arizona legislator John Fillmore introduced House Bill 2228. This bill would decriminalize cannabis possession of 2 ounces or less to a petty offense with a penalty of no more than a $100 fine, similar to the laws in Colorado, California, etc.


In 1972, Proposition 19 was introduced, which would have legalized marijuana statewide; it was rejected by 66% of the voters.[14] The initiative read as follows:[15]

(1) No person in the State of California 18 years of age or older shall be punished criminally, or be denied any right or privilege, by reason or such person's planting, cultivating, harvesting, drying, processing, otherwise preparing, transporting, or possessing marijuana for personal use, or by reason of that use.

(2) This provision shall in no way be construed to repeal existing legislation, or limit the enactment of future legislation, prohibiting persons under the influence of marijuana from engaging in conduct that endangers others.

On January 1, 1975, Senate Bill 95[16] made possession under one ounce of marijuana for non-medical use punishable by a $100 fine; stricter punishments exist for amounts exceeding an ounce, possession on school grounds, or subsequent violations or for sale or cultivation. If the offender is under the age of 21, his or her driver license may be suspended for up to one year.[17]

In Mendocino County, voters in 2000 approved Measure G, which called for the decriminalization of cannabis when used and cultivated for personal use.[18] Measure G passed with a 58 percent majority vote, making it the first county in the United States to declare prosecution of small-scale marijuana offenses the "lowest priority" for local law enforcement. Measure G does not protect individuals who cultivate, transport or possess cannabis for sale. However, Measure G was passed at the local government level affecting only Mendocino County, and therefore does not affect existing state or federal laws. The city of Berkeley has had a similar law since 1979 which has generally been found to be unenforceable.[19]

On June 3, 2008, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors placed Measure B on a county-wide ballot. Voters narrowly approved "B", which repealed most of the provisions of 2000's Measure G.[20][21] On July 3, 2008, the Sheriff and District Attorneys offices announced that they would not be enforcing the new regulations for the time being, citing pending legal challenges and conflicts with existing state law.[22]

On September 30, 2010, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law S.B. 1449, a bill that decriminalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana . The bill reduces simple possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction. This would eliminate the need to appear in front of a court and would treat possession of less than 28.5 grams like a traffic ticket, punishable by $100.[23]

In 2010, Proposition 19, titled the "Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010", qualified for the November California ballot. It was rejected by 54% of the voters.[24] This initiative would have legalized the recreational use of cannabis and its related activities in the State of California. It also would have allowed local governments to regulate and tax the newly created cannabis market.[25]


On November 6, 2012, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, a ballot initiative campaign backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, successfully passed Amendment 64, making Colorado the only place in the U.S to have legalized the possession, use, production, distribution, and personal cultivation of marijuana. The Marijuana Policy Project also played a lead role in drafting and campaigning for the historic initiative.[26] Following the passage of Amendment 64, Colorado enacted a complicated legislative scheme to regulate the cultivation, distribution, retailing and consumption of marijuana for Coloradans and visitors alike.[27]

Several counties in neighboring states have observed an increase of trafficking of marijuana, into their jurisdictions from Colorado, where it remains illegal; these counties have observed an increase of cost relating to prosecution of alleged traffickers.[28] It unclear whether this increase is a result of Colorado's policy change, as some agencies report an increase of trafficking while others do not.[29] Prior to the change in Colorado's laws regarding marijuana, there has been a decade-long trend of increasing marijuana trafficking.[30]

In 2006 a proposed amendment, Amendment 44, was rejected by 59 percent of the voting population. Amendment 44 would have legalized possession of 28.45 grams (approximately one ounce) or less by adults age 21 and older.[31]

Prior to November 6, 2012, the cities of Breckenridge and Denver had passed measures to make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis legal, although possession was still a crime under state and federal law.[32]


House Bill 39 (“HB 39”) takes effect for all marijuana offenses committed on or after 12:01 a.m. December 18, 2015. “The purpose of this bill is to decriminalize the possession or private use of a personal use quantity of marijuana.”1 To meet this purpose, Delaware’s drug laws were amended to create a “civil penalty” for private use or possession of a “personal use quantity” of marijuana.[33]

Delaware Online news article


District of Columbia

A canvasser for the Washington DC Cannabis Campaign, soliciting signatures for Initiative 71 (legalizing of marijuana)

On March 31, 2014, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed legislation to end arrests for marijuana possession in the nation's capital. The legislation took effect at midnight, 17 July 2014, following the mandated 60-day review by the Congressional Oversight Panel. The bill, sponsored by Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells, removed all criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and replaced them with a civil fine of $25. Police also no longer have grounds to search individuals solely based on the smell of marijuana. Outside of Colorado and Washington, the District of Columbia thus enacted the least punitive marijuana laws in the country.[34]

In April 2014, the DC Cannabis Campaign began soliciting petition signatures for Initiative 71, to legalize marijuana in the District.[35] On 7 July 2014 the campaign claimed to have submitted over 57,000 signatures to the Board of Elections, more than twice the number needed to qualify for the November ballot.[36]

A January 2014 poll by the Washington Post indicated that 63% of DC residents favored legalizing marijuana; the Post noted that African American support for legalization had increased from 37% in 2010 to 58% in 2014.[37] A September 2014 poll by the Post found that support for legalization had continued to increase, with legalization leading by "an almost 2-to-1 margin".[38] The New York Times recommended a "Yes" vote on the initiative in an editorial.[39]

Initiative 71 was put on the ballot in November 2014.[40] The initiative would allow the possession up to two ounces of marijuana for one's own use, and allow growing up to six cannabis plants in one's own home of which three or fewer may be mature and flowering simultaneously.[40] The initiative would also allow an adult to give, not sell, up to an ounce of marijuana to another adult.[40] The initiative would not apply to federal property, where marijuana possession would continue to be illegal under federal laws.[40] Initiative 71 passed, with 65% of votes in favor.[41]

In December 2014, the United States Congress, which has authority over the District of Columbia, voted to add language in a spending bill that prohibits the Government of the District of Columbia from spending both federal and local funds to "enact" a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District of Columbia.[42]

The Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, Phil Mendelson followed the typical procedure for a voter-approved referendum and sent a bill implementing Initiative 71 to Congress for a 30-day review, during which Congress may vote to veto it, which would lapse on February 26, 2015.[43]

The Government of the District of Columbia is taking the position that the initiative was enacted the day that voters approved it, and therefore the District of Columbia does not need to spend any further money to enact the law and will not violate the Congressional law.[44] Several members of Congress disagree with that position, saying that the District of Columbia must continue to enforce the law at it was prior to the vote on Initiative 71, and doing anything else is illegal.[44]


On January 27, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court approved the ballot language for a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the medical use of marijuana, following a successful petition drive.[45] The amendment proposal appeared on Florida's November 2014 general election ballot and failed to pass.[46] Polls show broad support for the legalization of medical marijuana among those living in Florida.[47] Marijuana has been decriminalized in the city of Tampa as well as Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia counties.[48]


On July 29, 2016, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law decriminalizing possession of marijuana, making the state the 21st and third largest in the nation to do so. Under the new law, possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less is now punishable by fines of $100 to $200, instead of jail time.[49] It also decriminalizes related offenses involving the possession of marijuana paraphernalia.[50]


On April 14, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation to remove criminal penalties from possession of small amounts of marijuana. Beginning October 1, 2014, the decriminalization bill (SB 364) imposes civil fines — not criminal penalties and possible jail time — on those possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana.

According to a February 2015 Goucher Poll, 52% of Marylanders support making the use of marijuana legal in Maryland, while only 44% oppose. [51]


On November 4, 2008, 65% of Massachusetts voters voted 'yes' on ballot question 2 known as the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative, which became law on January 2, 2009, reduced the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of cannabis from the previous misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and $500 fine to a civil infraction and a fine of $100, as well as prevent the inclusion of the citation into the CORI criminal records database which is used by law enforcement and employers to conduct background checks and jeopardizes the person's ability to obtain jobs, housing, and school loans. It also requires people under the age of 18 to have their parents notified and do community service, as well as receive drug awareness counseling or have the fine increased to $1000.[52]

House Bill 2929 and Senate Bill 1801 were introduced in January 2009 which seeks to legalize and tax the cannabis industry.[53][54]

On November 8, 2016, Massachusetts voted to legalize cannabis for recreational use. [55]


Since the early 1970s, an Ann Arbor ordinance and charter amendment have made possession of small amounts of cannabis a civil infraction, subject to a small fine, rather than a misdemeanor or felony, and local law enforcement officers have been directed not to pursue charges under state and federal law. However, more stringent state laws are enforced on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. (See Cannabis laws in Ann Arbor, Michigan). In 2012, ballot proposals in the cities of Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Flint enacted provisions similar to those in Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti passed an ordinance to make marijuana offenses the lowest priority for law enforcement officers.[56] In 2013, voters in Lansing, Ferndale, and Jackson approved initiatives allowing citizens at least 21 years old to possess an ounce or less of marijuana on private property.[57] In August 2014, voters in Hazel Park and Oak Park voted to approve a similar measure.[58] On November 4, 2014, voters in Berkley, Huntington Woods, Mt. Pleasant, Pleasant Ridge, Port Huron, and Saginaw also passed a similar measure.[59]

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Act of 2008 gave Michiganders the legal right to cultivate and use cannabis for medical purposes with authorization from a physician.


People at the Twin Cities Pride Parade supporting marijuana legalization

In 1976, Minnesota made it a petty misdemeanor to possess less than 42.5 grams of marijuana (approximately 1.5 ounces.)[60] On May 29, 2014 Governor Mark Dayton (D) signed into law a bill establishing a medical marijuana program in the state.


University of Mississippi is the only university in the country approved by the federal government to produce and research marijuana.[61] According to NORML Mississippi has decriminalized marijuana to some degree. Typically, decriminalization means no prison time or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount for personal consumption. The conduct is treated like a minor traffic violation.[62]


In 2014, a bill was passed by wide margins in the Missouri legislature to establish possession of small amount of marijuana as a minor "class D" misdemeanor subject to a fine, but for those previously convicted it would be a "class A" misdemeanor with a possible jail sentence. As of May 13, 2014, the governor had neither vetoed nor signed the bill.[63]


On November 5, 2002, voters in Nevada rejected Question 9 by 61-39 percent.[64] Question 9 would have legalized possession of cannabis under 85.5 grams (3 ounces) by adults age 21 and older and would allow cannabis to be regulated, cultivated, sold and taxed.[65] Question 9 would have also made low cost cannabis available for medical cannabis patients and would have created laws against "driving dangerously" under the influence of cannabis.[66]

On November 7, 2006, voters in Nevada rejected propositions that would have legalized possession of up to 28.45 grams (one ounce) of cannabis.[67] In Nevada, Question 7 would have allowed adults 21 and older to purchase cannabis from government-regulated shops and possession of 28.45 grams or less in a private home would have been legalized, but the Question was rejected by 56-44 percent.[68]

In November 2014, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol turned in "200,000 signatures to get the [legalization of cannabis] issue on the 2016 ballot, nearly twice the number required by the state." The signatures were submitted by Nevada Senator Tick Segerblom.[69] The petition resulted in Nevada Question 2, officially titled "Initiative to Regulate and Tax Marijuana."[70] The measure, to appear on the November 8, 2016 ballot, would legalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for adults over the age of 21.[71][72]

New Hampshire

On May 1, 2008, the New Hampshire Senate voted down a bill that would have reduced the penalty for the possession up to a quarter-ounce of cannabis from a misdemeanor to a violation punishable by a fine of no more than $200. This bill had previously passed the N.H. State House of Representatives and had the support of the majority of polled voters.[73]


In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis.[74] Possession of 28.45 grams (1 ounce) or less is punishable by a $500 to $1,000 fine; stricter punishments exist for sale or cultivation.[75] Criminal penalties were further reduced by the legislature in 2013.[76]

In 1986, Oregon's Ballot Measure 5 sought to legalize cannabis,[77] but it was rejected by 74% of the voters.[14] In 2012, the second ballot measure aimed at legalizing cannabis in the state appeared on the ballot as Measure 80 where it failed with 53% of voters opposing the initiative. On November 4, 2014, Oregon became the third state to legalize recreational Cannabis, through Measure 91 with 54% in favor of the Measure.[78]


The City of Philadelphia decriminalized possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana effective October 20, 2014, becoming the largest city in the United States to decriminalize marijuana.[79]

The City of Pittsburgh decriminalized possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana, or up to 8 grams of hashish on December 21, 2015.[80] However, paraphernalia laws are unchanged, and penalties can result in a maximum 12 month incarceration and a $2,500 fine.[81]

Rhode Island

A bill decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis has been signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, reports the Providence Journal. The law makes possession of less than an ounce of cannabis a civil violation with a $150 fine, although three violations in 18 months would be a misdemeanor with larger fines and the risk of prison time. Fourteen other states have introduced similar laws.

Half of the fines collected will be spent on drug awareness and treatment programs for young people under the law, which was overwhelmingly approved by the state's General Assembly. The law, which takes effect April 1, 2013, replaces one which made cannabis possession punishable with up to a year in jail or a $500 fine. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that the move will save Rhode Island up to $11 million a year.


On June 6, 2013, Vermont became the 17th state to decriminalize marijuana. Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill that made possession of less than an ounce of the drug punishable by a small fine rather than arrest and possible jail time.[82]


On November 6, 2012 voters passed Initiative 502 to remove criminal penalties for possession of quantities up to 1 ounce (28 g) of unprocessed "useable marijuana", up to 16 ounces (450 g) of infused products in solid form, or up to 72 ounces (2,000 g) of infused products in liquid form; and to license, regulate and tax cannabis production and sales under the authority of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.[83]

In 2003, Seattle voters approved an initiative requiring the Seattle Police Department and City Attorney's Office to make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law enforcement priority.[84]


The Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008 was introduced in the 110th United States Congress and represents the first attempt to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis at the federal level to be introduced in many decades. The bill was reintroduced in the 111th United States Congress as the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2009. In the 112th United States Congress, Rep. Barney Frank proposed H.R. 2306 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011. As of June 2011, this bill has been referred to committee pending vote in the House.

Arguments in support

In 1972, President Richard Nixon commissioned the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to produce an in-depth report on cannabis. The report, "Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding", found cannabis prohibition constitutionally suspect and stated regardless of whether the courts would overturn prohibition of cannabis possession, the executive and legislative branches have a duty to obey the Constitution.[4] "It's a matter of individual freedom of choice", said ACLU President Nadine Strossen in an interview. "Does that mean they should do it? Not necessarily, not any more than somebody should smoke or drink or eat McDonald's hamburgers."[85]

Potential medical benefits of marijuana

Marijuana (cannabis) is an herb drug, which contains a very active component delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).[86] For thousands of years, it was used for medical purposes in many different parts of the world. Recent studies also agreed that THC had great potential benefits for medical purposes. A number of patients who have HIV, multiple sclerosis (MS), neuropathic chronic pain and cancer were under medical marijuana treatment. The treatments could either be smoke on cannabis or oral preparations, which were synthetic THC and synthetic equivalent.[87]

According to Medical Uses of Marijuana (Cannabis sativa), patients with HIV reported that the drug reduced mixed neuropathic pain more significantly in comparison to other placebo drugs. They addressed that there was a minimum of 30% pain reduction when they were under smoked medical marijuana treatment. Furthermore, under the same type of treatment, most of the patients with multiple sclerosis showed dramatic improvements on their symptoms.[87] After the treatment, their handwriting was much clearer and head tremor pain was less than the samples taken before the treatment. In addition, many patients that associated with chronic pain, multiple sclerosis were also under marijuana oral preparation treatment. Patients treated with dronabinol, a synthetic THC, reported that there was a 50% pain reduction compared to 30% that was experienced when given the placebo. Furthermore, cancer treatment involving chemotherapy also agreed that dronabinol had significant benefits on delaying nausea and vomiting for patients.[87] However, medical marijuana treatments are not for everyone and it may cause adverse side effects for others. Overall, the potential long-term side effects of medical marijuana are not yet fully classified. As a result, further studies must carry out to fully understand the benefits as well as adverse psychiatric and medical side effects of the drug.

Economic arguments

Many proponents of cannabis decriminalization have argued that decriminalizing cannabis would largely reduce costs of maintaining the criminal justice and law enforcement systems, while legalizing cannabis to allow the cultivation and sale would generate a substantial amount of income from taxing cannabis sales.

In 2005, more than 530 distinguished economists[88] called for the legalization of cannabis in an open letter[89] to President Bush, Congress, Governors, and state legislatures.[89] The endorsers included conservative economist Milton Friedman and two other Nobel Prize-winners.[90]

The letter stated, among other things, "We, the undersigned, call your attention to the attached report [which]... shows that marijuana legalization — replacing prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation — would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and produce tax revenues of at least $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like most consumer goods. If, however, marijuana were taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco, it might generate as much as $6.2 billion annually...."

We therefore urge the country to commence an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition. We believe such a debate will favor a regime in which marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods. At a minimum, this debate will force advocates of current policy to show that prohibition has benefits sufficient to justify the cost to taxpayers, foregone tax revenues, and numerous ancillary consequences that result from marijuana prohibition."

The report also projected the tax revenues from decriminalization, by state.[91]

Other arguments point out that the funds saved from cannabis decriminalization could be used to enforce laws for other, more serious and violent crimes.[92][93]

In 1988, Michael Aldrich and Tod Mikuriya published "Savings in California Marijuana Law Enforcement Costs Attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976" in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. The study estimated California saved almost one billion dollars in a twelve-year period between 1976 and 1988, as a result of the Moscone Act of 1976 that decriminalized cannabis.[94]

In 2003, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published "Economic Costs of Drug Abuse", which stated without separately analyzing cannabis related costs, the United States was spending $12.1 billion on law enforcement and court costs, and $16.9 billion in corrections costs, totaling $29 billion.[95]

In 2004, Scott Bates of the Boreal Economic Analysis & Research center prepared a study for Alaskans for Rights & Revenues entitled "The Economic Implications of Marijuana Legalization in Alaska." The study estimated the Alaskan government was spending $25–30 million per year enforcing cannabis prohibition laws. The study found if the purchase of cannabis were to be taxed as a legal commodity, tax revenues would increase by about $10–20 million per year, making $35–50 million per year in funds available.[16][96]

In 2006, a study by Jon Gettman entitled "Marijuana Production in the United States" was published in the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform. The report states cannabis is the top cash crop in 12 states, is one of the top three cash crops in 30 states, and is one of the top five cash crops in 39 states. Gettman estimated the value of U.S. cannabis production at $35.8 billion, which is more than the combined value of corn and wheat. Furthermore, the report states according to federal estimates, eradication efforts have failed to prevent the spread of cannabis production, as cannabis production has increased tenfold in the past 25 years.[97]

In 2006, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released the 2006 World Drug Report, which stated the North American cannabis market is estimated to be worth anywhere from $10 billion to $60 billion annually.[98] That same study also indicated that the mountainous regions in Appalachia, and the rural areas of the West Coast are ideal for growing cannabis. Allowing farmers there to grow cannabis openly would both provide jobs and reduce the need for expensive federal welfare payments to those areas, which are disproportionately dependent on welfare.[99]

In 2006, a study by the University of California, Los Angeles found California has saved $2.50 for every dollar invested into Proposition 36, which decriminalized cannabis and other drug possession charges by allowing out patient treatment programs instead of incarceration. In the first year the proposition was enacted (2001), California reportedly saved $173 million, which is likely a result of fewer drug offenders in prison. In the five years after the program was enacted, 8,700 fewer people are in prison for drug offenses.[100]

Since cannabis is illegal in the United States, this policy has led to penalties for simple use and possession. Despite these penalties, users continue to find themselves in trouble with the law. The Connecticut Law Revision Commission made the following evaluation: "(1) the costs of arresting and prosecuting marijuana offenders were significantly lower in states that had done away with criminal penalties for possessing small amounts; (2) there was a greater increase in marijuana use in states that continue to treat possession as crime than in states that treated it as a civil offense; (3) easing the penalties for marijuana did not lead to a substantial increase in the use of either alcohol or hard drugs."[101]

Reduction of income earned by organized crime

The Drug Enforcement Administration has reported that cannabis sales and trafficking support violent criminal gangs.[102][103][104] Proponents of fully decriminalizing cannabis to allow the regulated cultivation and sale of cannabis, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, argue that fully decriminalizing cannabis would largely decrease financial gains earned by gangs in black market cannabis sales and trafficking.[92][105][106]

Displacement of alcohol consumption

A study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management by Mark Anderson and Daniel Reese indicated that increased marijuana use in California is a substitute for alcohol. This research showed that participants frequently choose marijuana over other substances. They reported that over 41 percent of the people said that they prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol. Some of the main reasons for this substitute were ‘less withdrawal’, ‘fewer side-effects’ and ‘better symptom management’.[107][108]

California Secretary of State’s office said that on September 7, 2010 the beer lobby donated $10,000 to Public Safety First, a group which opposed the passage of Proposition 19 to legalize cannabis.[109]

Reduction of subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs

The Marijuana Policy Project argues that:[110]

Research shows that the actual "gateway" is the illegal drug market. The World Health Organization noted that any gateway effect associated with marijuana use may actually be due to marijuana prohibition because "exposure to other drugs when purchasing cannabis on the black-market increases the opportunity to use other illicit drugs." A study comparing experienced cannabis users in Amsterdam, where adults can purchase small amounts of cannabis from regulated businesses, with similarly experienced cannabis users in San Francisco, where non-medical possession and sale of cannabis remains completely illegal, bolstered this hypothesis: The San Francisco cannabis users were twice as likely to use crack cocaine as their Dutch counterparts, more than twice as likely to use amphetamines, and five times as likely to be current users of opiates.

Health effects of cannabis

Comparison of the perceived harm for various psychoactive drugs from a poll among medical psychiatrists specialized in addiction treatment (David Nutt et al. 2007).[111]

Cannabis has been subject to many studies over the past century. Studies acknowledge that cannabis can in rare cases cause adverse reactions, but is generally safer than any commonly consumed drug such as alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals.[112][113][114] In fact, in an article published in 'The Lancet' journal about the adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use, Professors Hall and Degenhardt clearly stated that “the public health burden of cannabis use is probably modest compared with that of alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs.”[115] Psychopharmacologist David Nutt argues, though he is against full declassification, that the harm caused by cannabis is far less than that caused by alcohol or tobacco, which, if they were invented today "would be illegal.",.

Reduction in prison overcrowding and strain on the criminal justice system

Supporters of decriminalization argue that if cannabis were to be legalized it would reduce the amount of non violent offenders in prison making room for the incarceration of more violent offenders as well as easing the current strain that the large amount of cannabis possession cases have on the criminal justice system. They also propose that it would also save taxpayers the cost of incarceration for these non violent offenders.[116]

In the 1970s, there were just under 200,000 criminals serving time in state and federal prisons and an upwards of 750,000 in local jails for marijuana related crimes. Today there are over 1.5 million Americans serving time in an institution. If marijuana was decriminalized, these numbers were further be reduced again to below 700,000 inmates and save the taxpayers billions of dollars per year.[117]

The United States spends an estimated $68 billion per year on prisoners with a third of that number have been incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes including a sixth of those numbers as marijuana drug related offenses. A reduction in the prison population due to decriminalizing marijuana could save an average of $11.3 billion per year on courts, police, prison guards and other related expenses.[118]

Success of progressive drug policies adopted in other countries

Studies on decriminalization of marijuana in Portugal have indicated it to be a "huge success".[119] Drug use rates in Portugal were found to be dramatically lower than the United States with decriminalization enacted.[119]

Teen use of marijuana in the Netherlands where it is sold legally and openly is lower than in the United States.[120][121]

Individual freedom

Some people are in favor of decriminalization and legalization of marijuana simply for the moral stance that individuals' freedom for property rights should be respected. This view is generally held in libertarian politics.[122] This view is that regardless of any health effects of someone's lifestyle choice, if they are not directly harming anyone else or their property then they should be free to do what they want. Many people who support drug freedom policies may personally be strongly against drug use personally but still wants to protect the freedom of others to do so.[123]


In order to effectively campaign to legalize recreational cannabis use millions of dollars have been spent to lobby for this reform. George Soros is a billionaire hedge fund manager that has spent over $25 million on marijuana reform efforts.[124] In 2010 Soros wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal citing the fact that African Americans are no more likely than other Americans to use marijuana but are far more likely to be arrested for possession.[125]

Soros efforts to reform marijuana laws were predated by fellow billionaire, the late Peter Lewis. Lewis was the former chairman of Progressive Insurance and died November 23, 2013.[126] Lewis is considered to be the most high-profile billionaire backer of drug reform and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimated that Lewis had spent well over $40 million funding the cause since the 1980s.[126] During the November 2012 election, he spent almost $3 million helping secure the passage of marijuana legalization bills in both Washington state and Massachusetts.[126] The list of capitalists who have joined Soros and Lewis in the cause of Marijuana reform include John Sperling, who is the founder of the University of Phoenix and George Zimmer who is the founder and former CEO of Men’s Wearhouse. Sperling donated $70,000 to support marijuana law reform in Oregon,[127] and Zimmer contributed $20,000 to advocate for marijuana decriminalization in California.[128]

These capitalists have helped pave the way for a new type of business with special interests in the cannabis industry. The ArcView Group was founded in 2010 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and marijuana advocates Troy Dayton and Steve DeAngelo.[129] Their company teams up angel investors with companies that produce cannabis products and it's been one of the major sources of startup revenue for cannabis-related companies.[129] This company has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to educational reform groups like the Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a pro-legalization PAC run by the Marijuana Policy Project.[129]


The ACLU takes a firm position that decriminalizing cannabis will keep tens of thousands of people from entering into the criminal justice system[130] as police efforts result in both unnecessary arrests and the enforcement of marijuana laws wastes billions of tax payers’ dollars.[131] They affirm that removing criminal penalties for marijuana offenses will therefore reduce the U.S. prison population and more effectively protect the public and promote public health.[130] One of the reasons that the ACLU has been such a strong supporter of drug decriminalization is that according to their research drug related arrests have largely driven America’s incarceration rate to unacceptable levels. Drug offenders comprise over 500,000 of the more than 2 million people in America’s prisons and jails, and drug offenses combined with failed drug tests account for a significant number of those returning to prison for parole and probation violations.[130] Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 7 million pot arrests in the U.S. and of these arrests 88% were for simply having marijuana.[132] These marijuana related arrests now account for over half of all drug related arrests in the United States.[130] These arrests tend to be racially imbalanced as a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for marijuana related charges,[130] despite research that suggests fairly equal usage rates between the two races.[132] The ACLU is further troubled by the amount of money that is spent annually to enforce marijuana laws as they claim that over 3 billion dollars are spent every year by states to enforce marijuana regulation,[132] while the drug’s availability has not declined.[133] The ACLU claims that over 50% of Americans support marijuana legalization[132] and they are advocating for the legalization of Cannabis through the Criminal Law Reform Project.[134] They believe that the resources that are spent on enforcing marijuana law could be better invested in our communities through education and job training.[131]

The NAACP has taken a similar stance and has cited the same data used by the ACLU.[135] The NAACP has been strong supporters of the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act – H.R. 1523 and has reached out to members of congress to get this act passed.[136] This act is designed to decrease penalties for low-level marijuana possession and supports prohibiting federal enforcement of marijuana laws in states which have lesser penalties.[137]

Racial bias

There are claims of historical evidence showing that a significant reason for marijuana ban by US government was political and racist in nature, aimed to suppress Black and Mexican minorities. A quote from 1934 newspaper :"Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice."[138] Loo, Hoorens, Hof and Kahan also talked about this issue in their book ‘Cannabis policy, implementation and outcomes’. According to them, statistics show that controlling cannabis use leads in many cases to selective law enforcement, which increases the chances of arresting people from certain ethnicities. For example, while Blacks and Hispanics constitute about 20% of cannabis users in the US, they accounted for 58% of cannabis offenders sentenced under federal law in 1994.[139]

Arguments in opposition

Subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs

In 1985, Gabriel G. Nahas published Keep Off the Grass, which stated that "[the] biochemical changes induced by marijuana in the brain result in drug-seeking, drug taking behavior, which in many instances will lead the user to experiment with other pleasurable substances. The risk of progression from marijuana to cocaine to heroin is now well documented."[140]

In 1995, Partnership for a Drug-Free America with support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the White House Office of Drug Control Policy launched a campaign against cannabis use citing a Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) report, which claimed that cannabis users are 85 times more likely than non-cannabis users to try cocaine.[141] However, an article published in The Activist Guide by John Morgan and Lynn Zimmer entitled "Marijuana's Gateway Myth", claims CASA's statistic is false. The article states:[141]

The high risk-factor obtained is a product not of the fact that so many marijuana users use cocaine but that so many cocaine users used marijuana previously. It is hardly a revelation that people who use one of the least popular drugs are likely to use the more popular ones — not only marijuana, but also alcohol and tobacco cigarettes. The obvious statistic not publicized by CASA is that most marijuana users — 83 percent — never use cocaine.

Multiple opponents of cannabis decriminalization have claimed increased cannabis use results in increased abuse of other illicit drugs.[92][142] However, multiple studies have found no evidence of a correlation between cannabis use and the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.

In 1997, the Connecticut Law Revision Commission examined states that had decriminalized cannabis and found decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis has no effect on subsequent use of alcohol or "harder" illicit drugs. The study recommended Connecticut reduce cannabis possession of one ounce or less for adults age 21 and over to a civil fine.[143]

In 1999, a study by the Division of Neuroscience and Behavioral Health at the Institute of Medicine entitled "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base", found no evidence of a link between cannabis use and the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs on the basis of its particular physiological effect.[144]

In December 2002, a study by RAND investigating whether cannabis use results in the subsequent use of cocaine and heroin was published in the British Journal of Addiction. The researchers created a mathematical model simulating adolescent drug use. National rates of cannabis and hard drug use in the model matched survey data collected from representative samples of youths from across the United States; the model produced patterns of drug use and abuse. The study stated:[145]

The people who are predisposed to use drugs and have the opportunity to use drugs are more likely than others to use both marijuana and harder drugs ... Marijuana typically comes first because it is more available. Once we incorporated these facts into our mathematical model of adolescent drug use, we could explain all of the drug use associations that have been cited as evidence of marijuana's gateway effect ... We've shown that the marijuana gateway effect is not the best explanation for the link between marijuana use and the use of harder drugs.

In 2004, a study by Craig Reinarman, Peter D. A. Cohen, and Hendrien L. Kaal entitled "The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco", was published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study found no evidence that the decriminalization of cannabis leads to subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs. The study also found the mean age at onset of cannabis use and the mean age of cannabis users are both higher in Amsterdam than in San Francisco.[146][147]

In 2006, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden used twelve rats to examine how adolescent use of cannabis affects subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs. The study gave six of the twelve "teenage" rats a small dose of THC, reportedly equivalent to one joint smoked by a human, every three days. The rats were allowed to administer heroin by pushing a lever and the study found the rats given THC took larger doses of heroin. The institute examined the brain cells in the rats and found THC alters the opioid system that is associated with positive emotions, which lessens the effects of opiates on rat's brain and thus causes them to use more heroin.[148] Paul Armentano, policy analyst for NORML, claimed because the rats were given THC at the young age of 28 days, it is impossible to extrapolate the results of this study to humans.[149]

In December 2006, a 12-year gateway drug hypothesis study on 214 boys from ages 10–12 by the American Psychiatric Association was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study concluded adolescents who used cannabis prior to using other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, were no more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder than subjects in the study who did not use cannabis prior to using other drugs.[150][151]

In September 2010, a study from the University of New Hampshire examined survey data from 1,286 young adults who had attended Miami-Dade County Public Schools in the 1990s and found the association between teenage cannabis use and other illicit drug abuse by young adults was significantly diminished after controlling for other factors, such as unemployment. They found that after young adults reach age 21, the gateway effect subsides entirely.[152]

Increased crime

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has claimed that cannabis leads to increased crime in the unsourced pamphlet entitled "Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization"[153]

Studies have found no evidence of a link between cannabis usage and an increase in crime, but rather have found cannabis may decrease criminal behavior when under the influence.[154][155] In 1973, a report by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse entitled "Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding" found marijuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior, but rather "marijuana was usually found to inhibit the expression of aggressive impulses by pacifying the user, interfering with muscular coordination, reducing psychomotor activities and generally producing states of drowsiness lethargy, timidity and passivity."[4][155]

In 2001, a report by David Boyum and Mark A.R. Kleiman entitled "Substance Abuse Policy from a Crime-Control Perspective" found the "high" from cannabis is unlikely to trigger violence and concluded:[156]

Making marijuana legally available to adults on more or less the same terms as alcohol would tend to reduce crime, certainly by greatly shrinking the illicit market and possibly by reducing alcohol consumption via substitution if smoking marijuana acts, on balance, as a substitute for drinking alcohol rather than a complement to it since drinking seems to have a greater tendency to unleash aggression than does cannabis use.

In 2004, a study by Scott Bates from the Boreal Economic Analysis & Research center entitled "The Economic Implications of Marijuana Legalization in Alaska", was prepared for Alaskans for Rights & Revenues. The study found there was no link between cannabis use and criminal behavior.[96]

A 2014 study published in PLoS ONE found that not only did the legalization of Medical cannabis did not increase violent crime, but that a 2.4% reduction in homicide and assault was found for each year the law was in effect.[157]

Increased cannabis usage

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has claimed that cannabis decriminalization will lead to increased cannabis use and addiction in the un-sourced pamphlet entitled "Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization".[158] The pamphlet states in 1979, after 11 states decriminalized private cannabis use, cannabis use among 12th grade students was almost 51 percent and in 1992, when stricter cannabis laws were put in place, the usage rate reduced to 22 percent. The pamphlet also states that when Alaska decriminalized cannabis in 1975, the cannabis use rate among youth eventually rose to twice the national average youth usage rate nationwide; even though the law did not apply to anyone under the age of 19, the pamphlet explains this is why Alaska re-criminalized cannabis in 1990. Save Our Society From Drugs (SOS) has also stated that decriminalizing cannabis will increase usage among teenagers, citing an increase in Alaskan youth cannabis usage when cannabis was decriminalized.[159] However, cannabis use rose in all states in the 1970s, and the DEA does not say whether or not Alaska started out higher than the national average. Following decriminalization, Alaska youth had lower rates of daily use of cannabis than their peers in the rest of the US.[160]

In 1972, President Richard Nixon commissioned the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to produce an in-depth report on cannabis. The report, entitled "Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding", reviewed existing cannabis studies and concluded that cannabis does not cause physical addiction.[4]

Studies conducted in Oregon, California, and Maine within a few years of decriminialization found little increase in cannabis use, compared to the rest of the country; "The most frequently cited reasons for non-use by respondents was 'not interested,' cited by about 80% of non-users. Only 4% of adults indicated fear of arrest and prosecution or unavailability as factors preventing use."[160]

In 1997, the Connecticut Law Revision Commission examined states that had decriminalized cannabis and found any increase in cannabis usage was less than the increase in states that have not decriminalized cannabis; furthermore, the commission stated "the largest proportionate increase [of cannabis use] occurred in those states with the most severe penalties." The study recommended Connecticut reduce cannabis possession of 28.35 grams (one ounce) or less for adults age 21 and over to a civil fine.[143]

In 1999, a study by the Division of Neuroscience and Behavioral Health at the Institute of Medicine entitled "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base", concluded "there is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use."[144]

In 2001, a report by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter entitled "Evaluating alternative cannabis regimes", was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The report found there was no available evidence cannabis use would increase if cannabis were decriminalized.[161]

In 2004, a study entitled "The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco", found strict laws against cannabis use have a low impact on usage rates.[147]


Several U.S.-based advocate groups seek to modify the drug policy of the United States to decriminalize cannabis. These groups include Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, The Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, NORML, Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, and Americans for Safe Access. There are also many individual American cannabis activists, such as Jack Herer, Paul Armentano, Edward Forchion, Jon Gettman, Rob Kampia, and Keith Stroup; Marc Emery, a well-known Canadian activist, has supported cannabis activism in the U.S. among other countries by donating money earned from Cannabis Culture magazine and

In 1997, the Connecticut Law Revision Commission recommended Connecticut reduce cannabis possession of one ounce or less for adults age 21 and over to a civil fine.[143] In 2001, the New Mexico state-commissioned Drug Policy Advisory Group stated that decriminalizing cannabis "will result in greater availability of resources to respond to more serious crimes without any increased risks to public safety."[93]

A few places in California have been advocating cannabis decriminalization. On November 3, 2004, Oakland passed Proposition Z, which makes "adult recreational marijuana use, cultivation and sales the lowest [city] law enforcement priority."[162] The proposition states the city of Oakland must advocate to the state of California to adopt laws to regulate and tax cannabis.[163] On November 7, 2006, Santa Cruz passed Measure K, which made cannabis the lowest priority for city law enforcement. The measure requests the Santa Cruz City Clerk send letters annually to state and federal representatives advocating reform of cannabis laws.[164] On June 5, 2007, Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to send a letter in support of the legalization, regulation, and taxation of cannabis to state and federal legislators, and the President of United States.[165]

Ron Paul, a Texas Congressman and 2008 Presidential Candidate, stated at a rally in response to a question by a medical cannabis patient that he would "never use the federal government to force the law against anybody using marijuana."[166] In his book, The Revolution: A Manifesto he writes, "Regardless of where one stands on the broader drug war, we should all be able to agree on the subject of medical marijuana. Here, the use of an otherwise prohibited substance has been found to relieve unbearable suffering in countless patients. How can we fail to support liberty and individual responsibility in such a clear cut case? What harm does it do to anyone else to allow fellow human beings in pain to find the relief they need?"[167] He is also the cosponsor of the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008.

Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska and 2008 presidential candidate, responded to a caller on a C-SPAN program asking about cannabis and the drug war, he stated "That one is real simple, I would legalize marijuana. You should be able to buy that at a liquor store."[168]

Dennis Kucinich, a U.S. representative from Ohio and 2008 presidential candidate, has been an advocate of cannabis legalization. During Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, the following was posted on Kucinich's official campaign web site.[169]

Most marijuana users do so responsibly, in a safe, recreational context. These people lead normal, productive lives — pursuing careers, raising families and participating in civic life ... A Kucinich administration would reject the current paradigm of 'all use is abuse' in favor of a drug policy that sets reasonable boundaries for marijuana use by establishing guidelines similar to those already in place for alcohol.

Some members of religious organizations, even while not necessarily being in favor of marijuana consumption, have also spoken in favor of reform, due to medical reasons, or the social costs of enforcement and incarceration.[170] For instance, Revered Samuel Rodriguez of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conferences stated that “laws that prohibit marijuana affect the minorities significantly and hence should be reconsidered.” Religious groups uphold that marijuana does not harm as much as alcohol does and thus legalizing it for medicinal usage would not be harmful to the economy.[170]

See also

Further reading

Joshua Clark Davis, The Business of Getting High: Head Shops, Countercultural Capitalism, and the Marijuana Legalization Movement, The Sixties: A Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Summer 2015


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