Marijuana in the United States

Marijuana is a topic of significant public discourse in the United States, and while many are familiar with the discussions, it is not always easy to find the latest, research-based information on marijuana to answer the common questions about its health effects, or the differences between Federal and state laws concerning the drug. Confusing messages being presented by popular culture, media, proponents of “medical” marijuana, and political campaigns to legalize all marijuana use perpetuate the false notion that marijuana is harmless. This significantly diminishes efforts to keep our young people drug free and hampers the struggle of those recovering from substance use disorders.

The Obama Administration steadfastly opposed legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.

Marijuana and the State Laws

Since 1996, 23 states and Washington, DC have passed laws allowing smoked marijuana to be used for a variety of medical conditions. It is important to recognize that these state marijuana laws do not change the fact that using marijuana continues to be an offense under Federal law. Nor do these state laws change the criteria or process for FDA approval of safe and effective medications.

These state laws vary greatly in their criteria and implementation, and many states are experiencing vigorous internal debates about the safety, efficacy, and legality of their marijuana laws. Many local governments are even creating zoning and enforcement ordinances that prevent marijuana dispensaries from operating in their communities. Regulation of marijuana for purported medical use may also exist at the county and city level, in addition to state laws.

Voters in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state also passed initiatives legalizing the sale and distribution of marijuana for adults 21 and older under state law. District of Columbia voters approved Initiative 71, which permits adults 21 years of age or older to grow and possess (but not sell) limited amounts of marijuana. There are critical differences in marijuana laws from one state, county, or city to another. For more information, refer to the the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

It is important to note that Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) consistent with these determinations. On August 29, 2013, DOJ issued guidance to Federal prosecutors concerning marijuana enforcement under the CSA. The Department’s guidance is available on the DOJ Web site, and provides further detail.

Marijuana on Public and Tribal Lands

The United States has an abundance of public lands set aside by Congress for conservation, recreational use, and enjoyment of the citizens of this country and visitors from around the globe. Unfortunately, criminal organizations are exploiting some of our most pristine public and tribal lands as grow sites for marijuana.

During calendar year 2012, nearly 3.6 million plants were removed from more than 5,000 illegal outdoor grow sites in the United States. More than 43 percent of the marijuana plants eradicated in 2012 were eradicated from public and tribal lands. The U.S. Forest Service reports that nearly 83 percent of the 1,048,768 plants eradicated from National Forests were eradicated in California. Marijuana grow sites are typically in excess of 1,000 plants per site and sometimes more than 200,000 plants.

Public Safety

Individuals associated with Transnational Criminal Organizations are often involved in growing marijuana on public and tribal lands and can be armed and dangerous. Individuals tending domestic grow sites often use weapons—such as semiautomatic assault rifles and high-powered rifles—against intruders to protect grow sites. The number of intimidation incidents and the amount of violence associated with illegal marijuana grows on public lands has increased over the last two years.

Environmental Concerns

Outdoor marijuana cultivation is harmful to the environment. It negatively affects wildlife, vegetation, water, soil, and other natural resources because of chemicals, fertilizers, terracing, and poaching. Cannabis cultivation results in the chemical contamination and alteration of watersheds; diversion of natural water courses; elimination of native vegetation; wildfire hazards; poaching of wildlife; and harmful disposal of garbage, non-biodegradable materials, and human waste.

Law enforcement officials are also increasingly encountering dumpsites of highly toxic insecticides, chemical repellants, and poisons purchased by drug trafficking organizations, and transported into the country.

Cultivators apply insecticides directly to plants to protect them from insect damage. Chemical repellants and poisons are applied at the base of the cannabis plants and around the perimeter of the grow site to ward off or kill rats, deer, and other animals that could cause crop damage. These toxic chemicals enter and contaminate ground water, pollute watersheds, and kill fish and other wildlife.


ONDCP coordinates closely with Federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to disrupt this illegal market, while increasing efforts to reduce the demand for marijuana in the United States through prevention and treatment. ONDCP and the Department of Interior, through the Public Land Drug Control Committee (PLDCC), are working closely with the DEA, other Federal public lands agencies, the National Drug Intelligence Center, and the National Guard Bureau to combat this threat.

The DEA, National Guard, as well as state and local agencies also provide critical assistance in funding, helicopter support, and intelligence analysis. The DEA, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian tribes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Homeland Security agencies have increased their joint enforcement and investigative efforts with state and local enforcement agencies.

By investigating, removing, and reclaiming these illegal grow sites, and by apprehending and prosecuting the drug offenders and traffickers who operate them, Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies are protecting public safety and the environment, while depriving marijuana traffickers of their illicit revenue.

The Public Health Consequences of Marijuana Legalization

Evidence shows our drug problem is a major public health and safety threat, and drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. Legalizing drugs would increase their availability and normalize their use, leading to increased negative health consequences, particularly among young people. Drug legalization also undermines preventative health strategies, a keystone in improving overall public health in the United States.

Marijuana places a significant strain on our health care system, and poses considerable danger to the health and safety of the users themselves, their families, and our communities. We know that marijuana use, particularly long-term, chronic use that began at a young age, can lead to dependence and addiction.

Marijuana is not a benign drug:
• In 2011, approximately 4.2 million people met the diagnostic criteria for abuse or dependence on marijuana.
• Marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory illnesses, and cognitive impairment.
• Marijuana is also the second leading substance for which people receive drug treatmentvi and a major cause for visits to emergency rooms.
• Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years,viii raising serious concerns about implications for public health – especially among adolescents, for whom long-term use of marijuana may be linked with lower IQ (as much as an average 8 point drop) later in life.

Scientific research shows us that increasing the availability of drugs can lead to increased use, and growth in the consequences of that use:
• Legality increases the availability and acceptability of drugs, as we see with alcohol and tobacco – which far outpaces the use of illegal drugs.
• Increased availability and acceptability of marijuana would likely lead to increased consumption of the drug.
• Increased consumption leads to higher public health and financial costs for society. Addictive
substances like alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and taxed, already result in much higher
social costs than the revenue they generate. The cost to society of alcohol alone is estimated to be more than 15 times the revenue gained by their taxation.

Research also shows that policies that would make drugs more available would likely not eliminate the black market or improve public health and safety. Reports from the nonpartisan RAND Institute found that the potential economic benefits from legalization had been overstated:

• Marijuana legalization would not eliminate the black market for the drug.
• And dramatically lowered prices could mean substantially lower potential tax revenue for states.

It is for these reasons the Obama Administration continued to oppose legalization, and instead focuses on drug prevention, treatment, support for recovery, and innovative criminal justice strategies to break the cycle of drug use and crime. This approach is helping improve public health and safety in communities across the United States.

Marijuana in the Criminal Justice System

Marijuana in State Statute Topics

The United States Marijuana Laws and Issues

Explanations on the marijuana laws and issues in the United States, included the use of recreational or medical marijuana. Additional information is covered in the introductory entry, including a summary of federal law, and cross-references to related topics and resources.


Further Reading


Marijuana: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Marijuana. This part provides references, in relation to Marijuana, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Marijuana by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Marijuana and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Marijuana or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Marijuana and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Marijuana. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Marijuana should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Marijuana when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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