High hopes: The rocky road to cannabis legalisation in the US

  • Cannabis products are now widely available in the US, and the industry is growing fast.
  • Cannabis history is controversial, and although most US states have legalised medical and recreational cannabis, federal laws still prohibit it for any use.
  • In new research, Shalini Bhawal from Millsaps College, Mississippi, and Manjula Salimath from the University of North Texas explore what can be learned from the US experience of cannabis legalisation.

The cannabis industry is one of the world’s fastest-growing business sectors. Widely available, cannabis-derived products were worth an estimated $1.8 billion in America in 2022, according to statistics agency Statista.

New research by Dr Shalini Bhawal from Millsaps College, Mississippi, and Dr Manjula Salimath from the University of North Texas looks at cannabis history and cannabis legalisation in the US. Their work showcases the shift in norms about cannabis use and the social movements and scientific advances that have affected those changes in the last 150 years.

Cannabis has been consumed medicinally and recreationally since ancient times. By 1000 BC it was used in India as a pain killer and treatment for rheumatism, asthma, epilepsy, and gastrointestinal disorders. In medieval times Arab traders introduced it into Africa and Europe, and it later made its way to the Americas via transatlantic trade routes and the slave trade.

“The remarkable regulatory vacillation between criminalisation, regulation, deregulation, and legalisation illustrates the deeply contested nature of the cannabis industry.”

With various species and a complex chemistry, the cannabis plant is referred to by different names. While cannabis refers to its use in medicine, hemp (which is defined as cannabis with less than 0.3% of psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) is cultivated to create paper, textiles, cosmetics, and more. When cannabis leaves are consumed recreationally for their intoxicating effect, it is commonly called marijuana.

Cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.

Cannabis in the US

Cannabis was popular in the US. However, attitudes began to change in the early 20th century as scientific discoveries like morphine and aspirin were preferred to ‘traditional’ remedies for pain relief. During Prohibition, marijuana’s use as a cheap alternative to alcohol, particularly by people of colour, led to calls for it to be banned amid scientifically unproven claims that it caused irrational behaviour and violent crime. By 1938, all 48 US states had enacted laws to regulate its use, and by 1951 possession of marijuana was punishable with up to five years in prison.

The backlash continued after the second world war. The identification and distillation of cannabis’s main psychoactive ingredient by Israeli researchers laid the foundation for future research. The ‘War on Drugs’ further tightened draconian laws, and there was wide racial disparity between those who were arrested and convicted. This had a lasting and adverse impact on marginalised communities, affecting people’s economic standing and social status. For example, it led to the denial of voting rights and restricted access to employment, public housing, and education.

By 2019, 33 US states permitted medical use of cannabis.
Cannabis has been consumed medicinally and recreationally since ancient times.

In response, by the end of the 1970s, 12 states had decriminalised cannabis use. Though the pace slowed in the 1980s, discovery of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain a decade later led California to legalise medical cannabis in 1996. Four more states followed, and in 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalise recreational cannabis. By 2019, 33 states permitted medical use of cannabis, and 11 permitted recreational use, though federal laws remain unchanged.

Social movement and cannabis

Bhawal and Salimath examine the history of medical and recreational cannabis in the US through the lens of social movement theory. Proposed by the French sociologist and psychologist Gustav le Bon in 1895, the theory explains how people come together spontaneously to support a social goal.

The US cannabis movement has influenced demand and consumption patterns, as well as public policy and entrepreneurs’ perception about the industry. Bhawal and Salimath argue that an important feature of its history is that those who lobbied for cannabis legalisation were empowered by their position in society. Organisations like the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws were able to steer the conversation by focusing on social justice, arguing that consumers are not deviants and have a right to access cannabis products without fear of prosecution.

There were counter movements too. In the early 19th century, antagonists banked on their belief of keeping immigrants as an outgroup. In the 1980s, the Parent Movement’s argued that adolescents should not have access to drugs. By vilifying the cannabis movement, they delayed changes to legislation. As a result, the pro-cannabis movement shifted its focus to call for access to cannabis on compassionate grounds to treat illnesses such as AIDS and cancer. As many states legalised medical cannabis, there was increasing demand for complete legalisation, including recreational use. The changing societal outlook, combined with more social entrepreneurs and businesses trying to profit from legalisation, created new opportunities for further promotion of limited cannabis legalisation across different states.

“Business growth has also been helped by the willingness of US states to allow non-political actors to influence people’s habits, allowing the market to drive the legal cannabis economy.”

Business opportunity and neoliberalism

Bhawal and Salimath’s study is one of the first to explore how the history of cannabis legalisation has contributed to the commercial development of cannabis products. They note that during the 21st century, thanks to the cannabis movement and lobbying by various organisations, business opportunities were developed through changes in public perception, rather than developments in technology. Several bills seeking to further liberalise the industry are currently before the House of Representatives and Senate. These include proposals to remove marijuana from the controlled substance list, allow cannabis businesses to borrow money for investment, and to grow cannabis for further research – all of which are currently not allowed.

Bhawal and Salimath’s study explores how the history of cannabis legalisation has contributed to the commercial development of cannabis products.

Bhawal and Salimath argue that business growth has also been helped by a power shift driven by neoliberalism – the willingness of US states to allow non-political actors to influence people’s habits, allowing the market to drive the cannabis economy. Liberalisation has downsides too. Though medical cannabis is highly regulated for quality and potency, regulation of recreational cannabis is limited to the age of permitted use. For many businesses, growth is dependent on whether cannabis is regulated for medical or recreational use, and while potency issues in recreational cannabis are on the rise, businesses have kept this out of the spotlight by developing a wider range of products to a broader customer base. This raises moral and ethical questions for businesses that promote potentially intoxicating, and addictive, substances.

Under US federal law, cannabis is still illegal, and the actions that states have taken to legalise cannabis use can be reversed. Ideas about cannabis have changed many times and public and political opinion could change yet again. As Bhawal and Salimath comment: ‘The remarkable regulatory vacillation between criminalisation, regulation, deregulation, and legalisation illustrates the deeply contested nature of the cannabis industry, reflecting accompanying changes in both societal values and science.’

Please tell us more about the application of social movement theory to the history of cannabis legalisation.
Cannabis movement in the US has influenced three areas:
1. Demand and consumer consumption pattern. By highlighting the positive use of marijuana to combat diseases, the general public perception changed. As more people became aware, it influenced their personal choices (consumption) and became more receptive to recreational cannabis legalisation. Communities are more agreeable to recreational use when medicinal use of marijuana is already legalised. Early states to legalise medicinal use of cannabis like California, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon (in late 1990s) took 10 to 16 years to legalise recreational use while later states like Massachusetts and Washington DC did so within four years of legalising medicinal use. 

2. Public policies. Cannabis movement advocated the adoption and implementation of rules that protect the industry from external competition, make financing easily accessible, reduce taxes and in general support the growth of industry. There has been a constant rise in the lobbying activity seeking favorable legislations. The surge in pro cannabis bills introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 116th Congress is indicative of their increasing power and ability to influence policymakers and the general public. Similar trend can be observed by studying 117th Congress proposed bills too.

3. Entrepreneurs’ perception about the industry. Cannabis movement encouraged entrepreneurs by making the playing field more accessible and predictable. They influenced entrepreneurs’ perception of social and economic opportunities and their motivation to take risk exploiting these opportunities. As more members of the society found the use of cannabis acceptable, it reduced risks and boosted entrepreneurs’ motivation to participate in the industry. In addition, by appealing to the compassionate side of entrepreneurs who are driven to help people in need (HIV patients), cannabis movement influenced entrepreneurs’ perception.

Where do federal laws on cannabis use in the US currently stand?
There is an increasing gap between federal and state laws about cannabis. For instance, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Due to its status, the manufacture, distribution, dispensation, and possession of marijuana is prohibited except for federal government-approved research studies. Generally, state-controlled substances mirror federal laws, but cannabis is an exception. As of 2022, 37 states have legalised medical cannabis and 19 states have legalised recreational cannabis.

Given the governance structure of the states and federal government, the states cannot fully legalise marijuana (states cannot change federal law). So long as marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, all activities involving marijuana (manufacture, distribution, or possession with the intent to distribute) are prohibited and are a federal crime (anywhere in the US, including in states that have legalised medical or recreational marijuana under state law).

What else do we know about the link between the punitive cannabis laws of the mid-20th century and the social injustice experienced by minority communities?
The very fact that cannabis is clubbed under the umbrella term ‘drug’ does injustice to it. Based on history, the drugs laws were unfairly used to target specific communities. There is an interesting observation: when minorities were the predominant users, it was criminalised, but when the majority started using it, there were social movements to decriminalise it. When the businesses got involved and wanted to profit by commercialising this product, they lobbied the government to legalise it, and were also enabled in this by scientific research.

Your research is based on the US cannabis industry. What implications does it have for the rest of the world?
1. We anticipate a different trajectory for cannabis legalisation in Europe (more socialist/liberal) versus USA (more capitalist mindset). Asian countries are harder to predict due to greater country variation (eg, Middle East vs south-east Asian countries).
2. Cannabis legalisation in the US will have a norming impact on the rest of the world as well as make it an economically attractive industry to enter (US being a global leader in production and consumption of cannabis), and offers the potential to set standards for cannabis production/commercialisation/innovation in other countries. So, the US can shape the legal cannabis trajectory worldwide. This possibility makes our focus on the US significant.



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