Learn About Marijuana
Science-based information for the public

Federal Government & Legalization

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and its use remains illegal under federal law. As marijuana’s legal status has changed in several states, the U.S. Federal government has responded with guarded tolerance. Learn more about the Federal response to state marijuana legalization (the Cole Memo) and marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 substance below.

The Cole Memo: Federal Government Response to State Marijuana Legalization

federal building UPDATE: On January 4, 2018, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum rescinding the Cole Memo, which provided guidance from the Department of Justice to U.S. Attorneys outlining federal priorities for the enforcement of federal statutes relating to marijuana. Many states with legalized marijuana, including Washington State, have stated their intention to maintain their state-regulated systems while this issue is debated further.

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In 2013, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder outlined the federal government’s guidance on legalized marijuana, known as the Cole Memo (named after James M. Cole, Deputy Attorney General).

It conveys that, as long as 8 points of federal emphasis are observed by states legalizing non-medical use of marijuana, no direct interference from the federal government was planned.

This memo, however, does not change federal law. It is up to the current administration to decide how they will respond to legalization in states. The federal government could still prosecute individuals or confiscate assets under federal law if they so choose. Thus far, there is no clear indication that this will happen; however, this can change at any time.

Washington's Governor and Attorney General have addressed potential challenges to Washington law by the Trump administration. Inslee statement on Attorney General Sessions’ letter regarding Washington’s marijuana legalization efforts.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) is committed to ensuring the state is compliant with the Cole Memo’s eight requirements:

  1. Prevent distribution of marijuana to minors
  2. Prevent marijuana revenue from funding criminal enterprises, gangs or cartels
  3. Prevent marijuana from moving out of states where it is legal
  4. Prevent use of state-legal marijuana sales as a cover for illegal activity
  5. Prevent violence and use of firearms in growing or distributing marijuana
  6. Prevent drugged driving or exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use
  7. Prevent growing marijuana on public lands
  8. Prevent marijuana possession or use on federal property

readmoreRead More: For a recent debate on federal options, check out our section: "What are the options that the current federal administration can enforce?"

Marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug

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The federal illegality of marijuana is based on the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA), enacted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), that classifies substances into five groups, or "schedules," according to their potential of abuse/dependence.

In the CSA, "Substances are placed in their respective schedules based on whether they have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, their relative abuse potential, and likelihood of causing dependence when abused." (Learn more: DEA's Controlled Substances Schedules website)

Marijuana was designated a Schedule 1 drug in 1970, a designation still in place today. Schedule 1 is a classification used to define drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and peyote.

The most recent attempt to change marijuana's schedule 1 classification was made in 2016. It was denied on basis of lack of evidence and inconclusive research that cannabis has medical benefits, and on its high potential for abuse. Read about the reclassification petition and the federal government denial on the U.S. Department of Justice website.

Health Effects reportIt is important to note that marijuana’s Schedule 1 status has been considered by many scholars as a decisive factor in the near-cessation of scientific research on potential medical benefits of cannabis in the United States.

readmore Read More: Challenges and Barriers in Conducting Cannabis Research, from The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017), presents a comprehensive review of how marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug imposes barriers to science in at least four domains: 1) regulatory barriers, 2) supply barriers, 3) financial barriers and 4) methodological barriers.