Is Cannabis Legal or Illegal? It’s Complicated.

The legal status of medical cannabis has long been contentious, writes 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 wrote, “is simultaneously legal in [34+] 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.

All this is despite cannabis’s 5,000-year history of safe and effective use worldwide as a treatment for maybe hundreds of illnesses.

In December 2018 the president signed into law the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also called the 2018 Farm Bill. Among other things, the new law defined hemp, also called industrial hemp, as cannabis and cannabis derivatives (like cannabidiol [CBD], the main non-intoxicating cannabinoid in cannabis) that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC (by dry weight).

The Farm Bill also moved hemp oversight from the Drug Enforcement Agency and its Controlled Substances Act (CSA) schedule over to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for hemp-derived products and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for hemp growing. THC is still on the CSA’s schedule 1, the most restrictive.

The new regulatory agencies now are working through the details of hemp oversight, which for the FDA includes pressure from Congress and industry to decide how they’ll regulate cannabinoids like CBD. To date, GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex (r) was the first FDA-approved (in June 2018) formulation of purified, plant-derived CBD, as a flavored mouth spray, to treat two rare childhood epilepsy syndromes.

In the meantime, CBD, a popular non-psychoactive cannabinoid, has exploded into the marketplace and online in the form of capsules, oil, edibles, pre-rolls, and other products, none of which the FDA has yet approved. One reason for this, according to news reports, is that FDA says it needs more scientific data to regulate CBD. Boy does that sound familiar.

Too Dangerous to Study?

Every cannabinoid researcher on the planet can relate, because the long-running federal prohibition against cannabis in the United States has made it really difficult for scientists to get funding to study cannabis and its constituents. So there’s a crippling lack of scientifically based data, especially data from people rather than test tubes or lab animals, that affects everyone — researchers, regulators, and patients who would benefit from medical cannabis.

The too-dangerous-to-study plant is actually too-against-federal-law to study. And researchers who do manage to meet all the qualifications needed to study cannabis in the lab or with animals or people and get government approval to do so must use cannabis grown by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Drug Supply Program, which gets its cannabis from one source, the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy’s National Center for Natural Products Research.

Lots of scientists balk at this constraint on their research, but NIDA has been slow to change it, according to neurologist and cannabinoid researcher Dr. Ethan Russo. What’s really needed, he said during a 2017 interview, is for private enterprise to be able to grow cannabis and standardize the products for medical use.

For more information about how cannabis works, read The Endocannabinoid System: Relax, Eat, Sleep, Forget and Protect.

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