The Legalization of Marijuana: Legislative Status

The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes remains controversial, and in most states, illegal. Marijuana use has been advocated as being beneficial for the treatment of patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, anorexia, epilepsy, arthritis, migraines, and glaucoma. Despite the claimed medical benefits, the use and possession of marijuana for such purposes has not yet become completely legal on a state or federal level.

Arguments For and Against the Legalization of Marijuana
It has been argued that marijuana:

  • Is a stress reliever
  • Has real medicinal value
  • Is not lethal
  • Enhances creativity

Opponents argue that marijuana should not be legalized because:

It causes cancer
Use often escalates to use of harsher, more dangerous drugs
It will be too readily available to youths
Crime rates will increase

State Legislation Regarding the Legalization of Marijuana
Numerous states have enacted legislation recognizing marijuana’s medical value and legalizing its use in such circumstances. Such legislation sometimes provides for therapeutic research programs, as well as legalizing its prescription for specified medical conditions.

Twelve states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Nine states allow patients to grow, possess and use marijuana, if approved by a medical doctor. Louisiana, for instance, has enacted a program making marijuana legally accessible to cancer and glaucoma patients.

Federal Legislation Regarding the Legalization of Marijuana
Despite state legislation that allows marijuana use for medical purposes, the federal government has not yet enacted legislation in confirming the legality of such laws. Under federal law, penalties for possession of marijuana can be up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, at least one federal court has ruled otherwise, indicating an exception to marijuana use for medicinal purposes.

Federal Court Legalizes Marijuana for Medicinal Purposes
In December 2003, a federal court of appeals for the 9th Circuit granted a preliminary injunction allowing two women to grow and use marijuana for medicinal purposes. In reaching this decision, the court indicated that the Controlled Substances Act (a federal law governing the use and possession of illegal substances, including marijuana) was “likely” unconstitutional as applied to the women. The court further indicated that “the limited use of marijuana as recommended by a physician arguably does not raise the same policy concerns regarding the spread of drug abuse.”

Only some states (within the 9th Circuit) have passed laws that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes. The following states have passed legislation which generally allows, to some extent, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes: California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

On February 27, 2004, the 9th Circuit refused to review its opinion, in effect allowing individuals in states that have laws allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes to do so without fear of federal prosecution. Individuals who are considering the use of marijuana for such purposes should nevertheless continue to monitor the status of the law.

Supreme Court to Rule on Medical Marijuana
On June 28, 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear the aforementioned case, most likely in the fall of 2005. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is expected to define the federal government’s policy on medical marijuana.