Marijuana is big business these days in the U.S. Revenues could reach $40 billion this year, as the drug is now legal in 37 states for medical purposes while 23 states permit recreational use. However, there’s no federal oversight and an inconsistent, patchy set of state regulations persist.
At the end of last year, President Biden pardoned every American who has used marijuana. This represented a symbolic step towards decriminalizing the drug nationwide. But more importantly, the New York Times reports that in recently disclosed federal government documents scientists are now recommending a rescheduling of marijuana so that it is no longer on a par with illicit drugs such as heroin. The researchers suggest imposing fewer restrictions on marijuana, citing studies which show that the drug is less likely to cause harm than Schedule I substances.
The research review also emphasizes the medical usefulness of cannabis products, including for the treatment of anorexia and pain, as well as nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. Here, cannabis refers to all products derived from the plant Cannabis sativa. And marijuana indicates parts of the plant that contain “substantial” amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol.
Since 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug, a category that also includes LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), Ecstasy or MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) and heroin. Schedule I substances are deemed to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. They also carry severe criminal penalties under federal trafficking laws. Despite relaxation of laws allowing for medicinal and recreational use in 37 and 23 states, respectively, on a federal level marijuana’s legal status hasn’t changed for more than 50 years.
The federal scientific review says that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration grant marijuana Schedule III status. Such drugs are considered to have medical uses and a low to moderate potential for physical and psychological dependence. Examples include acetaminophen with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.
While the jury is still out on definitive estimates of clinical effectiveness and safety of cannabinoid-derived treatments, they’ve been used to help treat a variety of conditions, from chronic pain and neurological disorders to nausea, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. At the same time, dependence can be a serious problem for some people. Moreover, the drug has been linked to both psychological and physical addiction as well as psychosis.
Statista reports that increases in sales of cannabis products are expected to continue at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 14% from 2024 to 2028. And growth in revenue may be coming from an unlikely source. For people participating in alcohol abstinence last month—dubbed “Dry January”—roughly one-fifth turned to cannabis products instead, according to a poll by CivicScience. LinkedIn News discloses that revenue at cannabis giants Curaleaf and Green Thumb is expected to rise by approximately 6% in the first quarter of the year.
When compared to other fairly comparable regions in terms of size, such as the European Union, the U.S. has by far the highest revenue in the global cannabis market. And there’s considerably higher usage per capita in the U.S. than practically all European countries.
Consider just how much money is spent annually on marijuana in the U.S. According to a report posted in the MJBizDaily, a cannabis industry outlet, Americans doled out approximately $30 billion on legal marijuana in 2022, $10 billion more than they spent on chocolate.
Nevertheless, the industry is beset by continued lack of federal oversight and a formal legal pathway, as well as an uneven state-by-state patchwork of rules.
Comparing Policies in the U.S. and the Netherlands
Today, in the states where medicinal and recreational use of marijuana is permitted, there is far less regulation than in the Netherlands.
For several decades, American legalization activists called attention to the Netherlands to argue for leniency on drug-related crimes. Undoubtedly, the Dutch were well ahead of the curve with respect to de facto decriminalization, as they began instituting these policies in the 1970s. Yet there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the Dutch rules and regulations vis-à-vis marijuana.
In the Netherlands, there is a policy of toleration (”gedoogbeleid”) regarding what are classified as “soft” drugs deemed to have low harm potential, which include cannabis. While the sale of soft drugs is technically a criminal offence, sellers and users aren’t prosecuted so long as the quantities involved are small, namely, no more than five grams of cannabis product per customer. The same limit applies to individual possession in public or at home. Also, the stock of cannabis kept in an establishment that sells the product may not exceed 500 grams at any given point in time.
By comparison, depending on the state, individuals may purchase between 3.5 and 15 grams of cannabis concentrate at a time, with substantially higher amounts permitted in flower or bud form. In addition, there’s an extraordinarily wide range in terms of amount of cannabis that jurisdictions deem legal for a person to possess: Between 28 and 230 grams. And there don’t appear to be any official limits on inventories of marijuana in dispensaries.
In the Netherlands advertising of cannabis isn’t allowed, nor are online purchases and delivery of drugs to customers.
By contrast, advertising of cannabis products in states such as Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and others is ubiquitous. It’s on billboards and placards pasted onto public items such as modern trash bins, sometimes featuring deliver-to-your-door services.
In the Netherlands, consumption of marijuana in public spaces has at times been a lively point of discussion and not just among critics of liberal policies towards the drug. Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema (member of the progressive green-left party) has told media that “marijuana tourism is a blight on the city, fostering crime and public disorder.” Tourists and residents alike can face a €100 (£87) fine for public cannabis smoking in and around Amsterdam’s red light district.
The backlash in the capital against smoking pot in public areas isn’t a new development. As far back as 2007, the city council in Amsterdam voted in favor of introducing a citywide ban on smoking marijuana in public areas.
Most U.S. states have pro forma laws on the books which prohibit consumption of marijuana in any form in public or on federal land. But judging from the omnipresent, wafting scent of weed throughout America in places where it’s been legalized, the police appear to look the other way. Anecdotally, I lived in Amsterdam for 15 years and the distinctive odor of pot on the streets of Boston is much more widespread than it ever was in Amsterdam.
Then there’s the issue of marketing of medical marijuana which in the U.S. extends far beyond what is permissible in the Netherlands. In the U.S. medical marijuana businesses market their products for numerous diseases and conditions with virtually no regulatory oversight. State government-run entities, such as the Massachusetts-based Cannabis Control Commission, assert that medical marijuana is “approved” for a multitude of diseases and conditions that include glaucoma, hepatitis C, cancer, Parkinson’s, Crohn’s, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and ALS. It’s unclear whether a regulatory agency is implied by use of the word “approved” on the Commission’s website. Surely it isn’t the FDA, as it has not approved marijuana for any of the above-mentioned conditions.
The FDA has granted marketing authorization to the therapeutic Epidiolex, which contains a purified form of cannabidiol (not marijuana), for the treatment of rare and severe forms of intractable childhood epilepsy. In addition, the FDA approved Marinol and Syndros, which contain synthetic THC, and Cesamet, which contains a synthetic substance similar to THC, nabilone. These three drugs can be used for nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy, in addition to treatment of weight loss in patients with HIV/AIDS.
None of the trade or ingredient names of the four FDA-approved medications can be found in the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board database of approved therapeutics. And the European Medicines Agency has only licensed one of the four drugs, Epidiolex.
In the U.S., the purity or potency of cannabis products is largely unregulated. The Yale School of Medicine examined the THC content of cannabis and reports that it has “changed substantially. In 1995, the average THC content in cannabis seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration was about 4%. By 2017, it had risen to 17% and continues to increase.”
The Dutch government doesn’t impose limits on THC potency either, though parliamentarians have been discussing a proposal to restrict THC levels to 15%. Further, in a pilot program that began in December of last year, the government will regulate the purity and quality of the cannabis products being grown and cultivated and then sold and consumed in a selected number of establishments.
And while it’s currently formally illegal for these establishments to buy large quantities of cannabis, it’s obvious the stores, called “coffeshops,” must be getting their supply from somewhere. This was the impetus for conducting the pilot. And so, in a characteristically Dutch move involving pragmatism and a heavy dose of regulation, the government is pursuing an experiment in 10 counties where coffeeshops selling pot may procure cannabis from a state-appointed producer.
The business of buying, selling and consuming marijuana in America is subject to a hodgepodge of regulations. Obviously it’s not easy to apply lessons from Dutch experience, given the difference in size of the two countries and the vast disparities in legal frameworks, both between the nations and within the U.S., federal versus state laws, for example. Yet perhaps more could be done to harmonize state regulations to reduce confusion while pursuing a formal legal pathway at the federal level with a coherent set of restrictions that apply universally.