Is Cannabis Legal or Illegal? It’s Complicated.

The legal status of medical cannabis has been contentious for a long time, says Gerald Caplan, a law professor and dean emeritus of Pacific McGeorge School of Law, and now it’s also a legislative oddity. “Because state governments authorize cannabis possession and use in clear violation of federal criminal law.” (In Caplan G. Medical Marijuana: A Study of Unintended Consequences. 2012. Pacific McGeorge School of Law)

Medical cannabis, he said, “is simultaneously legal in [30] states and the District of Columbia and illegal in all 50 states and the District. And nearly a third of the U.S. population live in jurisdictions” whose legislation authorizes cannabis as a medical treatment, also in direct opposition to federal law.

Nate Beeler cartoon. Used with permission.

And this is despite having a 5,000-year history of medical use and having been proven safe and effective in all those years as a treatment for maybe hundreds of illnesses.

Too Dangerous to Study?

The federal law against cannabis isn’t just bad for those who need medical cannabis, it’s the main reason it’s so hard for scientists to get funding for cannabis research. The too-dangerous-to-study plant and its constituents actually are too-against-federal-law-to-study, especially for universities and other research institutions whose scientists depend on federal funds to do their critical work.


Researchers who do meet all the qualifications to study cannabis in the lab or with animals and receive government approval to do so have to get the cannabis from the National Institute on Drug Abuse Drug Supply Program, which gets its cannabis from one source, the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy’s National Center for Natural Products Research.

There are two problems with that, according to neurologist and cannabinoid researcher Dr. Ethan Russo. One is that the approved research focuses mainly on drug-abuse questions rather than on therapeutics (cannabis medicine), and the other is that for federally funded research right now there is only one source of cannabis, so researchers have to work with whatever they get.

Cannabis fluid extract, USP, Parke Davis & Co., 1933. From the National Museum of American History, displayed by the National Library of Medicine, Pick Your Poison Exhibition.

What’s really needed, Russo says, is for private enterprise to be able to grow cannabis and standardize the products for medical use.

Get if OFF Schedule 1, or any Schedule

And here are some of the reasons that cannabis has no business being on Schedule 1 of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Controlled Substances Act:

Ÿ Voters in 30 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico have enacted legislation allowing doctors to authorize patients to use cannabis.

Ÿ More than 63 million Americans live in jurisdictions where anyone over 21 can legally possess cannabis. The states, and counting, are Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Lots of states have legislation pending on legalizing cannabis or legalizing medical cannabis.

Ÿ There are more cannabinoid receptors in the brain than there are for all the other neurotransmitters combined.

Brain slices, from the National Institutes of Health Institute on Aging.

Ÿ Cannabis can treat an impossibly broad range of illnesses, disorders and diseases, from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease to acne.


For more information about how cannabis works, read Cannabis Medicine: Relax, Eat, Sleep, Forget and Protect.

For current information about the legal status of cannabis, see the resources page.