This November, several individuals in the United States will have the opportunity to change cannabis laws. Currently, four states have secured the necessary number of signatures to place their measures on the ballot. Decisions will also need to be made at the local level, affecting laws around recreational sales and depenalization of personal possession.
Before you fill out your ballots, it may be helpful to have a deeper understanding on the terms that will be presented.
Depenalization vs Decriminalization vs Legalization
Depenalization can be defined as the reduction of the use of existing criminal sanctions, which may be considered a de facto intervention because it does not require a large change in legislation. In Ohio, for example, the November ballot measure would eliminate penalties for the possession of misdemeanor amounts of cannabis.
Decriminalization means that possession of cannabis is still illegal, however individuals are subjected to less harsh punishments, such as a civil fine or drug education versus jail time. When drugs are decriminalized, the production and sale is still prosecutable by law. Some believe that it is a positive path to legalization.
Legalization makes cannabis legal, whether that be by state or federal law. When legalized, cannabis becomes a regulated product in a legal market, whether that be for recreational or medical use. Rules and directives are established largely by government agencies who create a framework for how cannabis will be legalized, manufactured, and distributed.
Federal Law vs State Law
When both the House of Representatives and Senate pass a bill that is then signed by the President, it becomes federal law. State law is enacted by each state legislature, signed by the governor. State law exists in parallel and sometimes in conflict with United States federal laws. In cases of explicit conflict, federal law overrides state law.
For example, the 2018 Farm Bill changed federal law by removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, legalizing hemp under certain restrictions. Hemp was further defined as the plant species Cannabis sativa L. with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. Bills state by state varied widely in response to the new federal policy.
As it currently stands on a federal level, all cannabis that does not fall under the definition of hemp remains illegal. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning there is a high potential for abuse and little to no medical benefit. This is an example of the conflict between state and federal laws, as residents may purchase marijuana, whether recreational or medical, in compliance with their state law but violating federal law.
Medical vs Recreational
A state who has legalized medical cannabis, requires individuals to follow specific steps before purchasing. This involves becoming a patient with the state’s medical marijuana (MMJ) program, after qualifying with an eligible condition. Medical cannabis is available to patients 18 years or older, patients under 18 must have a legal guardian register as a caregiver. Medical cannabis is typically more cost-effective than recreational as it is distributed for medical purposes and taxes are much lower. Medical patients may also have access to cannabis with higher potency levels and some states permit growing plants at their residence. Telehealth services have made it a more seamless process in many states to receive an MMJ card.
Legalized, recreational cannabis requires that an individual be 21 years old for purchasing. Recreational consumers are subjected to higher taxes and limits on THC per serving or per package. Fully legal cannabis offers economic opportunity by increasing tax revenue to the state and decreasing enforcement and incarceration rates.
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