Current federal law states that using marijuana for either recreational or medical purposes is a federal offense—despite marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State, medical marijuana legalization in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and pending legislation to legalize medical marijuana in 15 states, including Florida.
How the U.S. Government Classifies Marijuana
The United States government regulates drugs and establishes federal marijuana laws under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Drugs, substances and chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five categories (or schedules), according to the abuse rate and other factors.
Current federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is the strictest classification. Schedule I means the government views marijuana as a highly addictive drug with no current accepted medical use. Schedule I drugs—which also include heroin, LSD and Ecstasy—are considered the most dangerous.
Schedule II drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone and Demerol; according to the federal government, marijuana is more dangerous than each of these. Because marijuana is a Schedule I substance, federal law prohibits its prescription; therefore, in states where medical marijuana is allowed, physicians will make a recommendation or referral, instead of writing a prescription.
Enforcing Federal Marijuana Laws
The official White House stance on marijuana is “the Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana . . . because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.”
Therefore, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is tasked with enforcing all federal drug laws, including the current prohibition against marijuana. Federal marijuana law supersedes state law, so it’s possible to be arrested and prosecuted for using or possessing marijuana for medical purposes—even in states where medical marijuana is legal.
However, arguments continue on state rights vs. federal control, and many scholars question whether the U.S. government can enforce policies that contradict state laws.
Federal Marijuana Penalties
The CSA imposes strict penalties on for growing, selling and possessing marijuana—even for medical reasons. A first offense for possession can bring a fine of $1,000 and a year in prison. Subsequent convictions can result in up to $5,000 in fines and three years in prison.2
Trafficking in marijuana is a felony, punishable with large fines (up to $20,000,000 for individuals) and lengthy prison terms (up to life). Punishment depends on the amount of marijuana manufactured or distributed.3 Possible penalties double when marijuana is distributed to minors under the age of 21, or within 1000 feet of a school, playground, youth center, public housing or other youth-oriented locations. The sale of marijuana paraphernalia is also a felony, with a possible sentence of up to three years in prison upon conviction.
Federal marijuana laws call for mandatory minimum sentences:
- For second possession conviction: 15 days in prison
- For subsequent possession convictions: 90 days in prison2
- For first trafficking offense, 1,000 plants or kilograms and up: 10 years in prison
- For second trafficking offense, 1,000 plants or kilograms and up: 20 years in prison
- For first trafficking offense, 100 – 999 plants or kilograms: five years in prison
- For second trafficking offense, 100 – 999 plants or kilograms: 10 years in prison3
A mandatory minimum sentence means that the judge cannot sentence a defendant to less time than the mandatory minimum sentence.2
Updates to Federal Marijuana Policy
In response to state ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana use in Washington and Colorado, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an update to its federal marijuana law enforcement policy in August of 2013.
The policy makes it clear that, while marijuana remains an illegal drug under the CSA and that federal prosecutors will continue to enforce the law, the Department of Justice expects states such as Washington and Colorado to “establish strict regulatory schemes . . . including strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding.” Based on assurances of these strict regulatory actions, the Department is “deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time.”4
Pending Federal Marijuana Legislation
Perhaps in response to Washington and Colorado voters approving marijuana legalization, the U.S. House of Representatives has introduced several bills addressing marijuana policy:
- H.R. 1523 would allow states to determine their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
- H.R. 499 would replace marijuana prohibition with a licensing and regulation system covering production, distribution and sale of marijuana.
- H.R. 689 would reschedule marijuana and make the CSA inapplicable to those in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
- H.R. 710 would allow those charged with violating federal marijuana laws to present evidence that their actions were in compliance with state law.
- H.R. 784 would prevent federal officials form seizing property used by dispensaries that provide patients with medical marijuana.
- H.R. 1635 would create a blue-ribbon commission to determine the best way to resolve conflicts between the federal government and states where medical or recreational use of marijuana is legal.5
According to GovTrack.us, these bills have little to no chance of being enacted. The U.S. Senate has introduced no marijuana-related legislation.
Pending Marijuana Legislation in Florida
Florida voters will decide in November whether to approve an amendment to the state constitution that legalizes marijuana for medical use. Whether the ballot initiative passes or not, marijuana would still be against federal law.
Should the U.S. government change its stance on marijuana? Why or why not? Share your thoughts below.