a woman smokes weed
News·12 min read

Has The US Legalized Weed? Not Yet — But Here’s Why That Could Change Soon

The history of marijuana in the US, and why Congress hasn't passed legislation to legalize it (yet).
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
April 19, 2022

Most people might not expect weed to be such a hazy subject. After all, most adults in the US (88%) support legalizing marijuana. Thirty-seven states (and counting) have legalized marijuana for medical use. And 21 states have given recreational weed the go-ahead. Around the world, at least four countries have also given it the thumbs up. Including the US's neighbor Canada, eh. 

Despite its large approval (and use) in the US, federal marijuana legalization is still not a thing. It's classified as a Schedule I drug — just like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. And has been a target in the "War on Drugs" — an initiative started by President Nixon in the early ‘70s which has disproportionately impacted Black communities ever since. Meanwhile, legal weed's grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. So why hasn’t the federal gov turned over a new leaf? 

Before we get into the details, here are some terms you should know around legalizing weed:

  • Decriminalization: This means those who are caught with a small amount of weed typically won't face jail time,  but could be hit with fines instead. The specific penalties vary depending on the state and if it's a first offense.

  • Medical marijuana: Doctors are allowed to recommend the drug to treat certain health conditions. And some patients are eligible for a medical marijuana card that lets them buy from medical cannabis dispensaries. THC-based meds have helped cancer patients with chemo side effects. Meds that have a combo of THC and CBD have helped relax muscles for people with MS.

  • Recreational marijuana: State govs can't penalize people for using or possessing a certain amount of weed. And in some cases, it also means residents can grow or sell with a state license. But anything beyond the legal amount (which varies from state to state) can lead to fines or jail time.

Pew Research Center Marijuana Survey
Design: theSkimm

Why critics oppose legalizing weed

Across the country, there’s a small segment of the population (by one count 10%) that thinks marijuana should remain illegal. That may be because — as Toi Hutchinson, the president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) reminds us — “we have a generation of people who were raised on DARE programs.”

In case you forgot from elementary or middle school: DARE is a nationwide anti-drug program founded in the 1980s (not just an Urban Outfitters t-shirt design). And the program has remained “​​opposed to the legalization of marijuana.” Some of the same concerns that existed decades ago about weed — that many people may have learned from DARE — are still front and center, including: 

  • Concerns over addiction: One study estimates that about 3 in 10 people who use marijuana have an addiction to it. Another found that teens are more likely than young adults to develop an addiction. You also might remember hearing in school health class that marijuana could be a "gateway drug" to things like cocaine or heroin. But there's no solid evidence of that. Also worth noting that overdosing from marijuana is very unlikely. And there’ve been no reported overdose deaths from the drug. 

  • Market regulation: In states where weed is legal like Colorado and Washington, more children have gotten sick after accidentally getting their hands on things like edibles. Concerning, because kids’ brains are still developing. And research has shown weed can affect concentration, attention span, and problem solving.  

  • Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID): Studies have found that weed can impair people’s motor skills. And that people who use marijuana are 25% more likely to be involved in crashes than drivers who showed no evidence of use. In Washington, deadly crashes involving marijuana nearly doubled after legalization, according to one report. But there could be some flaws in the study given that testing for marijuana is difficult

Hutchinson said new efforts can allow “a reeducation for something that people have been told” about marijuana. And part of that reeducation is touching on the benefits that weed can bring to states and communities. 

NCSL Marijuana Legalization Map
Design: theSkimm

Why there's a joint effort to legalize weed

In 1996, California became the first state to say 'yes' to medical marijuana. Since then dozens of states have followed suit. In 2012, Colorado and Washington established a new first in US weed history by approving recreational weed. And they’ve shown the grass can be greener on the other side: Colorado has sold over $13 billion in medical and retail marijuana since sales began in 2014. And in 2022, the state brought in $325 million in tax revenue. Different sectors within the state are getting to enjoy the buds, err, fruit of their labor. Money from the 15% state tax on retail sales is split between funds that focus on health care and education, law enforcement, and public schools. One analysis shows CO has the second-best economy in the country.

Given all of that, it’s no surprise that Colorado has become a model for states looking to get in on the high. In 2022, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Maryland OK’d recreational weed as well. Here are some of the reasons states are adding ‘420 friendly’ to their bios:

  • Reap the kush benefits: While 2022 brought a dip in cash from recreational weed sales, totals are still expected to hit $52 billion by 2026. Meaning, more money to fund things like public education and health insurance programs. But some states have seen revenue goals fall short and found making money off weed can be a complex issue.

  • Create new jobs: In 2022, the legal weed industry reportedly added over 100,000 new jobs in the US. And nationwide, it supports 428,000 full-time employees — more than the number of people who work as EMTs and paramedics. During the pandemic, new employees reportedly flocked to the industry seeking refuge from traditional retail jobs.

  • Alcohol’s legal, why not weed?: Marijuana is typically used in a similar way to alcohol. Like in social settings or to unwind after a long day. And advocates argue weed is safer than alcohol. The CDC says over 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the US every year. And while marijuana can lead to confusion or anxiety (just like alcohol) there’ve been no reported deaths from a weed overdose.

  • Right a wrong: When New York legalized marijuana in 2021, it also automatically expunged past convictions for certain marijuana-related offenses and prioritized weed licensing for people with prior weed convictions. Meanwhile, California has a fund for programs that help with addiction, job placement, and mental health. States looking to go green with rec marijuana are aiming to help communities who’ve suffered the most from the war on drugs. Which brings us to…

Why federal marijuana legalization is a social justice issue

Someone gets arrested for marijuana every 90 seconds. That’s based on 2020 data from the FBI. In previous years, the number of arrests has been every 58 seconds and even every 37 seconds. These stats paint a picture of the evolving war on drugs. In 1971, America officially began its campaign to make drug abuse “public enemy number one.” The war hasn’t stopped — particularly for people of color — despite growing legalization in the US. Here’s what’s happened in the decades since the crackdown started:

  • Large disparities in incarceration rates: A 2020 report by the ACLU found that Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to get arrested for weed possession. Even though both groups of people use marijuana at roughly the same rate. 

  • Drops in marijuana arrests aren’t created equal: As more states have legalized recreational weed, there’s been a slight decrease in the number of marijuana-possession arrests. But that doesn’t mean it’s been felt across communities of color. Despite legalization in Virginia, 60% of marijuana-related cases involved Black Americans. Even though they only make up 20% of the state’s population. Other states like Colorado have seen similar issues. 

When states have legalized weed, they've tried to promote social equity as part of their plans. That includes awarding licenses to sell or grow marijuana to people in communities hit by the war on drugs and clearing former marijuana-related offenses. But that's come with some setbacks:

  • Cannabis convictions can be slow to clear: When CA legalized weed in 2016, it also led to marijuana convictions being expunged or reduced. But it’s up to the person to petition — a costly, time consuming process. One 2020 report found that just 3% of eligible persons received help. But individual cities like San Francisco and San Diego are speeding things up on their own. Meanwhile, WA began pardoning people with certain marijuana-related convictions…six years after it legalized weed.  

  • A booming business for white people: Black Americans are being left behind in the growing market. In 2017, one survey found that 81% of weed business owners were white. Another 2021 report found that less than 2% of the US’s estimated 30,000 cannabis companies are Black-owned. This is in part due to how states distribute licenses to sell weed — which can involve things like lotteries and extensive applications. Many states also limit the number of licenses available.  

Another big issue? Funding. Steve Hawkins, the president and CEO of the US Cannabis Council (USCC), said Black business owners in the weed industry need cash to get their businesses up and running. 

“Even if you win a license, you then have to have the capital and money to actually have your business succeed. And that brings us right back to federal prohibition,” Hawkins said. “If we saw cannabis descheduled, it would allow for a lot more resources to flow from the Small Business [Administration], and other incentivized programs that exist for distressed communities.”

In order for that to happen, Congress has to legalize weed on the federal level. That way, marijuana businesses and banks don’t risk breaking federal laws when they’re doing business. But lawmakers haven’t made much progress on the issue.

Where the federal government stands on weed legalization

Steve Hawkins from USCC
Design: theSkimm

Overall, progress has been pretty slow. But the Biden administration is working to change that. In Oct. 2022, President Biden made a move to pardon thousands of marijuana-related convictions. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said. The president has started the process to review marijuana’s Schedule 1 drug status. Which means marijuana could finally be on its way out of the ‘hard drug’ category.

But there’s still a long way to go to actually legalize weed. During Biden’s presidency, lawmakers have tried (and failed) to pass legislation around this issue. Here are some of the laws they’ve worked on:

  • The MORE Act:  In April 2022, the House voted 220-204 — largely along party lines — to decriminalize marijuana. The measure also created a process for expunging some marijuana convictions. And set up a sales tax on cannabis products. The Senate never took up this bill.

  • The SAFE Banking Act: It would prohibit federal banking regulators from punishing banks that work with the cannabis biz. In February 2022, the measure passed the House for the sixth time (as part of a larger piece of legislation). But while the act has bipartisan support, some senators want to focus on legalizing marijuana before moving on to banking.

  • The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act: It would remove cannabis as a federally controlled substance, expunge nonviolent marijuana-related crimes at the federal level, and regulate and tax weed (states would still be able to set their own rules). Reports say Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) may reintroduce the bill in 2023.

Hutchinson from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) says the trouble with federal weed legalization runs deep. “Why can't we just fix this? Because this is criminal justice reform. This is drug policy reform. This is case studies and how you reinvest in communities” she said. And given today’s political climate, creating impactful change is difficult. Especially since weed isn’t a priority. The government has been putting issues like the economy, immigration, and healthcare at the top of their to-do list. Plus, 43% percent of US adults also reportedly have access to rec weed. So, the urgency to get the federal gov involved may not be very high.

But the gov’s inaction on weed will have to change eventually, according to Hutchinson. “We cannot have state governments in direct conflict with the federal government…That is a conflict that our system is not designed to bear for very long,” she said. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers aren't the only ones who have the power in this fight. In 13 out of 18 states, voters have approved recreational marijuana via ballot measures. If you do the math, that means 72% of the time that marijuana legalization was left directly to voters, they said ‘yes.’ In the meantime, other states like Wyoming and Florida are pivoting efforts to create or expand marijuana policies to 2024.


America is living in two different realities when it comes to recreational marijuana use. And it's affecting marginalized communities the most. Until the federal government changes laws that many see as outdated, the war on drugs could continue to have detrimental effects on people's lives.

Updated February 7 to include new information.

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