As a freelance writer who spends a significant portion of each month writing about recreational marijuana and medical cannabis, I know firsthand just how much misinformation is out there. Too few people really understand marijuana’s legal status, for example. Too few understand that, despite misleading political language, marijuana is still illegal nationwide.
It must be understood that marijuana and medical cannabis are the exact same thing. The medical cannabis movement has adopted their chosen terms in order to avoid the negative connotations associated with marijuana. Yet medical cannabis is still marijuana. It still contains a level of THC that constitutes marijuana under federal law.
As for political language, consider recent attempts by federal lawmakers to continue protecting state cannabis laws by not allowing the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute marijuana crimes. Language in a recent Senate bill offers a classic example.
Both Legal and Regulated
Both the House and Senate are working on appropriations bills for 2024. Those bills need to go through committee and markup before they can go to the floor of their respective chambers for a full vote. The bill currently making its way through the Senate Appropriations Committee states the following:
“This bill again contains language preventing the Justice Department from interfering with states that have medical marijuana laws, ensuring that the prescribing and dispensing of medical marijuana in those states is both legal and regulated.”
That is a wonderful sentence that sounds quite meaningful. The problem is that its key point simply isn’t true. The bill’s language does not ensure legal and regulated marijuana at the state level. Marijuana, whether medical or recreational, remains illegal under federal law. The only thing Congress is doing by limiting the Justice Department is preventing federal prosecution. They are not legalizing anything.
States Are Just As Guilty
It turns out the states are just as guilty of using misleading political language. One state after another talks about medical cannabis or recreational marijuana legalization. But their individual state laws do not legalize anything. The federal government has declared marijuana illegal by classifying it as a Schedule I controlled substance. State laws do not preempt that. State laws don’t magically remove marijuana from Schedule I.
In Utah, state residents and visitors with valid medical cannabis cards can walk into the Beehive Farmacy dispensary in Salt Lake City and freely purchase vapes, gummies, etc. But that does not mean they are doing so legally.
Medical cannabis in Utah has not been legalized. It has been decriminalized. What is the difference? Decriminalization is simply a legal doctrine which dictates that state authorities will not criminally prosecute people for cultivating, processing, distributing, and possessing marijuana.
Choose the Best Suited Language
What this all boils down to is the tendency for people to choose language that best suits their agendas. Utah regulators prefer terms like ‘medical cannabis’ and ‘cannabis pharmacy’. They do not want industry players discussing marijuana or dispensaries. Those terms don’t lend themselves well to the image Utah wants to portray.
Likewise, lawmakers on Capitol Hill do not want legislative language to state that, while marijuana remains illegal, they will not allow the Justice Department to prosecute marijuana crimes. Putting that sort of language into a bill clearly demonstrates lawmakers’ willingness to be permissive when they feel voters demand it. They won’t tell it like it is because they don’t want to be held accountable.
Regardless of what any politician or news outlet declares, marijuana remains illegal throughout the United States. Both recreational and medical marijuana are Schedule I-controlled substances that cannot be legally cultivated, processed, possessed, and distributed. Do with that as you will.