Last edited: April 13, 2023
While the vast majority of states have reformed cannabis laws, the federal government’s position has remained largely unchanged since the early 1970’s. Except in very rare circumstances, at the federal level, marijuana and marijuana products are illegal and subject to criminal law enforcement through the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA.
Yet while the federal government continues to enforce marijuana prohibition, state governments regularly tax and regulate cannabis production and sales. Millions of Americans in over three dozen states access marijuana products despite federal law. This difference in approaches has created a huge number of challenges for consumers, regulators, law enforcement, and businesses. This won’t really change until federal law changes.
We talk about the status of federal reform and some of its problems here. Click the links below for a closer look at some of the key issues.
In early February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed provisions of the SAFE Banking Act as part of the America COMPETES Act, marking the sixth time cannabis banking legislation has been approved by the chamber.
Because the Senate already passed its own version of the COMPETES Act without cannabis banking language included, there will be negotiations to decide the fate of the banking provisions in the large-scale legislation.
Please urge your federal lawmakers to keep SAFE Banking in the COMPETES Act.
Lack of access to banking is a serious barrier for state-legal cannabis businesses across the country. It keeps prices high for patients and consumers, hinders social equity efforts, and, due to the cash-only manner of operations, creates risks for workers and communities.
Eighteen states, and the District of Columbia, have now legalized adult-use cannabis, and more states are going to be moving forward with similar legislation. How long will federal lawmakers ignore this issue?
The federal government’s failure to pass meaningful banking reform harms the entire cannabis industry, but it disproportionately hurts small-business entrepreneurs, many of which are social equity- and minority-owned companies. Passing cannabis banking reform is a key step toward dismantling federal cannabis prohibition.
SAFE Banking sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), said he’s “confident” his cannabis banking legislation is finally going to make it through the Senate and onto the president’s desk before he leaves office at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the MORE Act, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity (CAO) Act, and the States Reform Act would all bring an end to the failed era of federal cannabis prohibition, and the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act would fund state expungement programs for past cannabis convictions.
Stay tuned for further federal cannabis policy developments!
On July 14, 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a preliminary draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, a new bill that would end federal cannabis prohibition.
As currently drafted, the bill would make the following changes to federal cannabis policies:
You can read a summary here.
Please ask your federal lawmakers to support this legislation!
On May 28, 2021, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) reintroduced the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. If enacted, the legislation would end the federal prohibition of cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act and ending criminal penalties under federal law. The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the MORE Act in a 228-164 vote in December 2020. This vote marked the first time in half a century that a chamber of Congress voted on a bill to end the federal prohibition of marijuana, but the bill did not advance in the Senate.
In addition to federally decriminalizing and descheduling cannabis, the MORE Act would require federal courts to expunge prior cannabis-related convictions and provide for resentencing; provide grants and funding to communities most harmed by the war on cannabis; lift barriers to licensing and employment in the cannabis industry; block federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to cannabis use; protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis; and allow VA physicians to recommend medical cannabis to veterans.
Further, since serious criminal justice reform cannot progress in our country without ending the war on cannabis, the MORE Act would set federal policy on a path toward correcting an unfair system by addressing many of the harms caused by prohibition using an equity and justice-centered framework. A summary of the bill’s key provisions can be found here.
Send an email to your representative in support of the MORE Act.
Also, on May 12, 2021, Republican Reps. David Joyce (OH) and Don Young (AK) introduced the Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act, a bill that would federally legalize cannabis.
Meanwhile, on April 21, 2021, the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act (H.R. 1996), sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), was approved by the House in a bipartisan vote of 321-101. SAFE previously passed the House in September 2019 in a 321-103 vote. It's now up to the Senate to consider the bill. The Senate version was reintroduced on March 23, 2021 and is sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT), with 180 current cosponsors.
The SAFE Banking Act would create protections for financial institutions that provide financial services to state-legal cannabis businesses. Passing this legislation would also promote equity in the cannabis industry by offering small and minority-owned businesses access to banks and regulated financial services.
Stay tuned for updates and opportunities to take action as these bills progress!
On the federal level, cannabis remains illegal. The federal government classifies cannabis, along with heroin and cocaine, as a Schedule I drug with a high potential for abuse and little to no medical benefit.
However, 18 U.S. states and the nation’s capital have made cannabis legal for all adults, and a total of 36 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands allow for comprehensive public medical cannabis programs.
Contained within the federal budget are provisions to protect states' rights to responsibly regulate medical cannabis programs. Since December 2014, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment has prohibited the Justice Department from spending funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. This amendment must be renewed each fiscal year in order to remain in effect and has been included in a series of spending bills.
The U.S. House has voted twice to end the crackdown on medical cannabis, demonstrating bipartisan support for real federal cannabis policy change. In December 2020, the House voted in favor of the MORE Act, which would end federal cannabis prohibition. There is now more momentum than ever for ending prohibition.
1850: In the United States, cannabis was sold over the counter and was commonly used as treatment for sundry illnesses including, but not limited to, cholera, alcoholism, opiate addiction, and convulsive disorders.
1936: Every state had passed a law to restrict possession of cannabis, eliminating its availability as an over-the-counter drug.
1937: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed to prohibit all non-medical use of cannabis in the United States. However, it also limited medical use due to fees and regulatory restrictions that imposed a significant burden on doctors prescribing cannabis. The American Medical Association opposed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 without success.
1970: On October 27, 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was enacted. Title II of the act – the Controlled Substances Act – established categories varying from Schedule I (the strictest classification) to Schedule V (the least strict). Cannabis was placed in the Schedule I category, thereby prohibiting its use for any purpose.
1995: MPP was founded in January 1995 and is the largest organization in the U.S. that’s focused solely on ending cannabis prohibition.
1996: California voters approved Proposition 215 to legalize medical cannabis. However, the Clinton administration opined its opposition to the proposition and threatened to revoke the prescription-writing abilities of doctors who recommended or prescribed the drug.
2000: In response to the Clinton administration’s aversion to Proposition 215, a group of physicians challenged this policy as a violation of First Amendment rights, and in September 2000 prevailed in the case Conant v. McCaffrey, which allows physicians to recommend – but not prescribe – medical cannabis.
2005: During the Bush administration, agents were enforcing federal laws against state-operated medical cannabis cultivators and patients. In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal government’s ability to enforce federal law in states that have legalized medical cannabis in the case Raich v. Gonzales.
2009: In the first term of the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that only medical cannabis providers “who violate both federal and state law” would be targeted for prosecution. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued a memorandum with guidelines for federal enforcement while also largely affirming the earlier-stated hands-off approach for state-legal medical cannabis activities.
2011: In response to raids by the federal government and in an attempt to clarify the Obama administration’s stance on medical cannabis, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole issued a memorandum specifically noting that the “Ogden memo” protections applied only to individuals and not commercial operations.
2013: In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a second Cole Memo that offered guidance to prosecutors and law enforcement on where to focus cannabis enforcement efforts. The enforcement priorities included: preventing distribution of cannabis to minors; preventing cannabis revenue from funding criminal enterprises, gangs, or cartels; preventing cannabis from moving out of states where it is legal; preventing use of state-legal cannabis sales as a cover for illegal activity; preventing violence and use of firearms in growing or distributing cannabis; preventing drugged driving or exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with cannabis use; preventing growing cannabis on public lands; and preventing cannabis possession or use on federal property. You can read this memo, which was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January 2018, here.
2014: The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, included in the spending bill, prohibits the Justice Department from spending funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. The amendment has been subsequently included in a series of spending bills.
2019: In November 2019, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee passed the most far-reaching cannabis legalization bill to ever receive a committee vote in Congress (the MORE Act). This was an historic moment in our decades-long campaign to end cannabis prohibition at the federal level.
2020: In December 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act in a 228-164 vote. This vote marked the first time in half a century that a chamber of Congress voted on a bill to end the federal prohibition of cannabis. The MORE Act is one of the most robust cannabis reform bills ever introduced in the U.S. Congress. If enacted, the MORE Act would end the war on cannabis at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act and ending criminal penalties under federal law.
Click here to see MPP’s history of accomplishments on the state level.