The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

United States

While the USA is infamous for both its extremely harsh drug laws (and consequential incarceration rates – often as the result of mandatory minimum sentencing) and its insatiable appetites for illicit drugs, 14 US states have passed some variety of cannabis decriminalisation laws since 1973 and 17 now allow medical cannabis.

Studies conducted in the 1970s to assess the impact of decriminalisation on the prevalence of cannabis use in four decriminalised US states indicated slight but statistically insignificant increases in cannabis use among the adult population. Over the same time period, states with harsh penalties experienced larger and statistically significant increases in the prevalence of use.

Following decriminalisation in California, the total cost of cannabis enforcement declined from $17 million in the first half of 1975 to $4.4 million in the first half of 1976.

A recent development in the Nov 6th Presidential elections is the states of Colorado and Washington becoming the first to vote to legalise marijuana for adults 21 and over – which if it were to suceed without federal interference, would make this the world’s first legal, regulated and taxed market for cannabis.

This is likely to bring to a head the opposition between federal and state enforcement of drug laws. Federal enforcement has closed down medical marijuana dispensaries and caused great tension between state and federal authorities. Since the US Constitution authorises states to decide their own legislation in this area, many US citizens feel that the DEA and other federal enforcement is over-stepping their rights to democratically determine the laws in their state.


The head of the U.N. drug watchdog agency is urging U.S. federal officials to challenge the Colorado and Washington legislation, stating that the approvals send “a wrong message to the rest of the nation and it sends a wrong message abroad.” However, his agency has no enforcement ability. Instead they are putting pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to “take all the necessary measures” to ensure that marijuana possession and use remains illegal throughout the U.S.

Both Washington and Colorado are holding off on plans to regulate and tax the drug while waiting to see whether the Justice Department will assert federal authority over drug law.

The US is fiercely opposed to any weakening of prohibition. US president Barack Obama recently sacked his top Latin America adviser, Dan Restrepo, following the embarrassment of having several of his closest allies in the region use his presence at April’s Summit of the Americas to demand that he rethink his country’s four-decade long “war on drugs”.

In August 2013, the Attorney General Eric Holder permitted Colorado and Washington States to pass the new legislation for marijuana that encompasses a new system for taxation and regulation of cannabis for adults.

Nowadays, 18 States have already legalized the medical use and decriminalized recreational use of cannabis within the last decade.

Some States are likely to legalize marijuana next, i.e. Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island and Vermont.