The Landscape of Legalization: A Modern Pulse Check on Cannabis Legalization in the United States

April 5, 2024

In recent years, the United States has witnessed a significant shift in attitudes toward cannabis legalization. Once a taboo subject, discussions surrounding the legalization of cannabis have become increasingly mainstream, with many states adopting various forms of legalization for both medical and recreational use. This evolving landscape has sparked debates, raised questions about public health and safety, and prompted policymakers to reconsider decades-old drug policies. At the heart of this movement lies the legalization of hemp at the federal level, a pivotal development that has reshaped the conversation surrounding cannabis reform.

The Rise of Cannabis Legalization: A State-by-State Analysis

The journey toward cannabis legalization in the United States has been gradual and varied, with individual states taking the lead in implementing their policies. As of 2024, 24 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while 38 states have legalized it for medical purposes. This patchwork of state laws has created a complex regulatory landscape, with each state setting its cultivation, distribution, and consumption rules.

States such as Colorado, California, and Oregon have emerged as pioneers in cannabis reform, generating significant tax revenue and creating new economic opportunities. Conversely, other states have been more cautious, opting for limited medical programs or maintaining strict prohibitions on cannabis use. Nonetheless, the momentum towards legalization continues to grow, with more states considering or actively pursuing cannabis reform initiatives. But where does federally legal hemp fit in this patchwork blanket?

One of the most pivotal developments of cannabis legalization came in 2018 with the federal legalization and de-scheduling of hemp. The Farm Bill removed hemp – a legal classification of cannabis – from the list of controlled substances, introducing a legal pathway for its cultivation and use in the United States.

This move sent shockwaves through the cannabis industry and society at large. By recognizing hemp’s immense potential for industrial, medicinal, and nutritional applications, the federal government effectively destigmatized a plant that had been demonized for decades.

Legalizing hemp has opened the floodgates for a booming market and innovative hemp product lines, and it has also offered a glimpse into a future where cannabis could be viewed through a more nuanced, evidence-based lens rather than steeped in misinformation and stigma. Later on, after the initial 2018 de-scheduling, hemp blossomed into a carbon copy of the State-Legal Recreational Cannabis model, selling THCA-rich flower, concentrates, and other psychoactive cannabinoids. The veil between hemp and cannabis has become so thin in the modern day that it leaves a lot of consumers confused as to what the difference between these two products even is, and the reason is an unfortunately complex one.

Significant THCA Changes Uprooting Hemp

Tennessee and other states have recently moved to squash THCA sales; seeming as though lawmakers are backpedaling the legalization of hemp and replacing it with their definition of “cannabis legalization,” making it seem like the two industries are coming from two different plants, and especially pivoting this “legalization” as something the people have been asking for since almost a century ago.

The truth is, however, that hemp is cannabis; they are the same plant. Hemp has never been required to be non-psychoactive or produced only for CBD (or particular cannabinoids in general), or especially only used for textiles and fabric. Hemp is perfectly smokeable and produces every intoxicating and non-intoxicating compound that “regular” cannabis contains. Representatives and lawmakers have made the process of discerning the two (which are, again, the same plant) even more convoluted than straightforward cannabis legalization, to the point where both lawmakers and consumers are left with a lot of falsehoods and misunderstandings, creating legislation that doesn’t benefit the current hemp industry or properly educate everyone. Two different sectors were created because of the misconceptions and interpretations of the law, which are divided between State Legal Cannabis and Federally Legal Hemp. Banning THCA flower, which is “normal” THC-dominant cannabis legally protected under the 2018 Agriculture Farm Bill, would allow lawmakers and representatives to control the source of cannabis products, the flower, and decide which businesses get to sell, grow, and carry it.

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Despite huge milestones, significant roadblocks remain on the path to comprehensive cannabis reform. The conflict between federal prohibition, federal legalization of hemp, and state-legal markets continues to create ambiguity and hinder industry growth. Cannabis businesses face difficulties accessing financial services, transporting products across state lines, and securing institutional investment.

Moreover, the legacy of the War on Drugs persists, with communities of color continuing to bear the disproportionate brunt of discriminatory cannabis enforcement. Efforts to address these injustices through social equity programs and expungement initiatives have gained momentum but require sustained action and resource allocation.

Looking ahead, the question is not if but when federal cannabis legalization will occur. The dominoes are aligned with public support, which is cresting at an all-time high of 68%, favoring nationwide legalization and an ever-growing roster of states jumping on the bandwagon.

If approached thoughtfully and equitably, the end of federal cannabis prohibition could unlock unprecedented economic, medical, and social opportunities. As this multi-billion dollar industry takes root, prioritizing social equity, sustainable practices, and responsible regulation will be crucial in shaping a cannabis landscape that benefits all Americans, not just a privileged few.

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