The dynamic between federal and state laws in the United States regarding cannabis is a complex and conflicting one. At the federal level, cannabis remains illegal with a Schedule I controlled substance classification under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) rendering it illegal to produce, distribute, or possess cannabis. However, over the past several years, the number of states that have enacted laws legalizing cannabis for medical or recreational purposes has grown. According to a categorized map of the United States produced by American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation on January 1st, 2023, the number of states to legalize cannabis is up to thirty-seven, an unavoidable increase of direct and distinct conflict in the eyes of the law nationwide.

The conflicting legal stances have presented various challenges for individuals and businesses alike that operate in the inflating cannabis industry. In any of the thirty-seven states of legalization, cannabis operations face definitive difficulty – though overall growth in banks’ acceptance – accessing traditional bank services because of regulation at the federal level and are thus reluctant to work with operations that remain in violation of federal law; assisting cannabis businesses runs the risk of violating the Controlled Substances Act as well as, in light of the National Credit Union Administration’s recent pursuit of Anti-Money Laundering compliance failures by credit unions, also being deemed money launderers.

Additionally, those who use cannabis – even when in accordance with state laws that have legalized it – still risk facing the legal consequences of use imposed at the federal level. Examples of such risks are the denial of certain government benefits as well as the termination of government employment.

Historically, the federal government has taken a hardline stance against cannabis, but this continues to change in contemporary society. In 2013, the Department of Justice issued a memorandum known as the Cole Memorandum, sent to all United States Attorneys, minimizing DOJ enforcement of federal marijuana prohibition in states where it was, in any form legalized except instances when violence, impaired driving, and cartel profitability were concerned. Under the Trump administration in 2018 however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum.

The interplay of conflicting federal and state cannabis law is an evolving dynamic. While the federal government still imposes a hardline classification of cannabis, emerging and encouraging signs that this may change are at hand. There is growing momentum for federal reform of cannabis laws, but until federal law does in fact change, individuals and businesses in cannabis operations continue to face challenges, risks, and legal uncertainties.