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The Who, What, Where, and Why of Marijuana Laws

Photo by Flickr User Cannabis Culture

On December 11, President Obama said that he would not make it a "top priority" for federal law enforcement officials to prosecute recreational users of marijuana in states that have legalized it: Colorado and Washington.

Since then, debates about the pros and cons of marijuana use have raged. Many questions remain: Who supports marijuana use (and who doesn't)? What is the difference between medical marijuana use and recreational marijuana use? Where is marijuana legal? Why is this such a big issue? Read on for answers.


U.S. President Obama Speaks at Intel's Fab 42

President Obama

Although he admits to smoking pot in college, Obama currently opposes nationwide legalization.

The official White House position on legalizing marijuana makes these points:

1. Marijuana use is harmful and should be discouraged
2. Legalization would lower price, thereby increasing use
3. Tax revenue would be offset by higher social costs
4. Legalization would further burden the criminal justice system
5. Legalization would do little, if anything, to curb drug violence

Defense.gov photo essay 110429-D-XH843-004

Gil Kerlikowske

Kerlikowske is the "drug czar" - officially the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Today, he provided the White House's response to a petition about legalizing marijuana. His response acknowledged:

"[I]t is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana."

But beyond that, he didn't say much.

Eric H. Holder Jr

Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also opposes the legalization of marijuana, but he's been pretty silent on the matter. He said he would announce a federal marijuana policy "soon," but that was almost a month ago.

Geneva - United Nations logo

Raymond Yans

International communities, including the United Nations, have encouraged the United States federal government to change the recently passed marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington. Yans, who heads the International Narcotics Control Board - the UN's drug watchdog agency - said that U.S. legalization policies send "the wrong message" abroad.

justin bieber

Justin Bieber

Yes, the Biebs plays a role in this story. People have been freaking out over the photos published by TMZ of Justin apparently smoking pot.

Bieber is in pretty good company - celebs who smoke include Michael Phelps and Justin Timberlake. Pro-legalization sites like Marijuana Majority use celebrities to spread the marijuana legalization message.

Even historical personalities have been linked to marijuana:



Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States. Its primary psychoactive ingredient is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, a substance that causes side-effects including altered senses, relaxation, and appetite stimulation.

There are strong arguments on both sides of the discussion over legalization.

Arguments for legalization include these:
1. Compared with drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco, smoking pot is relatively harmless.
2. Marijuana has health benefits that make it useful for medicinal purposes.
3. The "war on pot" is incredibly costly and not all that effective.
4. If pot were legalized, it would be better regulated and thus safer.

And the main arguments against legalization include these:
1. Smoking pot is wrong.
2. Smoking pot is harmful to the body and can have considerable negative health effects.
3. Marijuana is a "gateway drug" - using it often leads to using harder drugs.

Medical marijuana is sometimes used to ease nausea and stimulate hunger in patients undergoing chemotherapy, but even the health effects of medical marijuana are up for debate.

On one side are people like Dr. William Courtney, an advocate of medical marijuana who thinks that marijuana smoothies could have health benefits.

On the other are people like Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who thinks that the increased potency of modern marijuana makes it more dangerous:

"It’s much more potent marijuana, which may explain why we’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in admission to emergency rooms and treatment programs for marijuana."

Teen marijuana use is currently holding stable - 36% of high school seniors reported smoking marijuana during the previous year, for example - after four years of slightly rising.


Marijuana was recently legalized in Washington and Colorado.

LoveTrip: Colorado
Amendment 64 was signed into Colorado law by Governor John Hickenlooper (who opposed it) on December 10, 2012. The measure passed by a margin of 55 to 45, due partially to the efforts of Colorado's Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Now, Colorado is opening its first marijuana clubs:

Washington Map
Washington's law legalizing marijuana for recreational use went into effect on December 6, 2012, and was celebrated by a gathering of public pot smokers (even though smoking outside of one's home is still illegal in the state). The new law will eventually allow marijuana to be sold and taxed like alcohol.

Many other states are considering legalizing marijuana, and Rolling Stone has compiled a list of seven states likely to do so.

However, due to federal law, it will still be difficult (and officially illegal) to buy marijuana even in Colorado and Washington.

In some states, marijuana is decriminalized: that is, possessing small amounts of marijuana only results in a fine, and not jail time. This infographic breaks down the various state laws on marijuana use:

Source: visualoop.tumblr.com via Visual on Pinterest



So, why was marijuana recently legalized in two states after years of laws against marijuana use?

The arguments that marijuana is less damaging to the brain than alcohol, that legalization will save money and boost the economy, and that imprisonment of pot users is irrational and ultimately creates more problems than it solves have been gaining steam:

Some want to keep pot illegal but decriminalize it to minimize its use.

And now there are even medical marijuana dispensaries and discussions about how to run legal marijuana operations in the United States.

So since Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, why is there still a problem with its use in those states? Even though two states' laws make marijuana legal, the official federal government stance maintains that marijuana is an illegal substance.

And even President Obama is confused about what that means:

"How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal?"

Public opinion, though, goes to the states: 64% of Americans say that the federal government shouldn't step in to interfere with state marijuana laws. So maybe if more states legalize it, the federal government will eventually follow suit.

The Kicker

If you care about this story, here are some things you can do:


Learn more facts about marijuana use >>

Explore the history of marijuana use in the U.S. >>


Support decriminalization with Smart Approaches to Marijuana >>


Support the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws >>

Join Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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The Who, What, Where, and Why of Marijuana Laws

Susannah Griffee

Susannah is an NYU student from Memphis who has interned at USA Today College, Games.com, The New Yorker, The New York Times, NBC, and Vogue, as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives. Follow: @susannahgriffee.

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