Most Americans Live in a State Where the Federal Marijuana Law Does Not Apply

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September 6, 2013 - By Avinash Tharoor
The nationwide illegality of marijuana was established under the 43-year-old Controlled Substances Act, which classifies the plant as a Schedule I drug, alongside dangerous substances such as heroin. However, beginning with decriminalization in Oregon in 1973, state legislatures have gradually taken it upon themselves to oppose this federal encroachment upon personal freedoms.
 
On August 1, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill to allow for medical marijuana in his state. This resulted in a subtle but important change. The number of Americans living in a state with fully-criminalized marijuana fell – for the first time since prohibition began – to below 50 percent of the national population. 
 
In other words, the federal law that criminalizes marijuana possession outright has been, theoretically, overridden by state legislatures in the majority of the USA. 27 states (and Washington, D.C.) have liberalized their law books, resulting in approximately 170 million Americans living in a state where marijuana possession has been legalized, decriminalized, or made medicinally available.
Additionally, a nationwide survey from March of this year found that 52 percent of Americans support legalization, and 45 percent oppose it. 
 
On August 29, the Department of Justice issued a directive to the 22 states with medicinal marijuana, as well as Colorado and Washington - where the plant is recreationally available. The federal government will no longer interfere with their state marijuana laws, as long as a number of stipulations are adhered to – such as preventing distribution to minors. 
 
This was a momentous change in the national drug policy, and perhaps occurred because of the government’s realization that they were actively suppressing the democratic will of the majority of Americans.
 
Despite this progress, marijuana remains federally illegal as a Schedule I drug. In many parts of this country, marijuana users are being imprisoned, and the plant’s prohibition allows gang wars to rage on. Meanwhile, the impact of US marijuana prohibition is incomparably more painful for those living south of the border, where violent cartels build their empires on illegally-gained American dollars.
 
The Department of Justice’s decision is certainly a step in the right direction, but the failures of the war on marijuana will never be truly rectified until the government backs down from its criminalization of the plant.
 
Avinash Tharoor is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.
 
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