Mapping the Current State of Cannabis Legality in the U.S.

Cannabis legalization at the state level in the U.S. continues to gain ground, even though federal law still classifies “marijuana” as a Schedule One drug, meaning that it is absolutely banned and has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” The resulting discrepancy between state and federal law presents a highly curious situation. It makes a mockery of the supposedly fundamental principle that federal law trumps the state law, with ultimate sovereignty vested in the United States rather than in the individual states. How could a substance possibly have “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” if 76 percent of those states have declared by law that is does?

The two best maps that I have found of the legal status of cannabis in the United States at the beginning of 2024 are reproduced below, one of which is from Wikipedia and the other from the political journal The Hill.  As can be seen, they portray the situation of quite differently, finding agreement only regarding states in which cannabis is fully legal (mapped as “legal for recreational use” on the Wikipedia map and “recreational and medical” on the one from The Hill.)

The discrepancies between the two maps indicates the complexities of the “gray zone” of partial legalization. In Nebraska and North Carolina, for example, cannabis is fully illegal but decriminalized, meaning that no one will go to jail for possessing it, at least on first offence. Several states allow “medical marijuana” only if its THC content is so low that one cannot experience an altered state of consciousness by ingesting it. In Texas, for example, only CDB oil can be used, and it cannot contain more than one percent THC. Yet as the Wikipedia article on the legal status of cannabis in the United States notes, it is “de facto legal” in Austin, the capital of Texas, as the municipal police will not arrest anyone in possession of less than four ounces, a considerable quantity. Utah, in contrast, allows the ingestion of potent cannabis, but only if one is terminally ill. On all the maps posted here, Oklahoma is placed in the same category as Utah, that of allowing medical but not general use, but the contrast between the two could hardly be more extreme. Medical dispensation is easy to get in Oklahoma, and the state’s cultivation regulations are extraordinarily relaxed. As the New York Times noted in a 2021 article entitled “How Oklahoma Became a Marijuana Boom State”:

Ever since the state legalized medical marijuana three years ago, Oklahoma has become one of the easiest places in the United States to launch a weed business. The state now boasts more retail cannabis stores than Colorado, Oregon and Washington combined. In October, it eclipsed California as the state with the largest number of licensed cannabis farms, which now number more than 9,000, despite a population only a tenth of California’s.

Tribal sovereignty adds another layer of complexity. Cannabis may be completely illegal North Carolina, but it is fully legal in its lands that fall under the authority Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. South Dakota allows only medical sales, but on two of its Native American reservations cannabis fully legal.

The complexities of cannabis legality in the U.S. are too large to be captured in any single map. The two maps posted above do a reasonably good job, but the categories that they use might be confusing for some readers. I have therefore remapped the data that they use to try to convey the situation in a more straightforward manner. In both cases, I employ a demographic cartogram, in which each state is sized according to its population, rather than a conventional map. (Unfortunately, the base map that I used excludes Alaska and Hawaii). Using a such a cartogram allows one to visualize the number of people affected by the different legal regimes.

The first of these maps (above)  follows the depiction by The Hill but reduces the categories to three: complete legality, complete illegality, and partial legality. As can be seen, cannabis is fully legal for most people living the northern half and western quarter of the United States. But the only three states that follow U.S. federal law by completely banning cannabis use – Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas – are located in this same general region of the country. Such clear regional differences, however, are not so apparent in my remapping of the Wikipedia data, which uses five categories and focuses not on cannabis per se but rather on cannabis that contains enough THC to be psychoactive (below). This map better captures the diversity of legal regimes found in the South and across the Great Plains.