Since cannabis is still federally illegal, how do states legalize it? Couldn't the federal government still enforce their laws?

1 Answer 1


US States cannot and do not claim to repeal the federal laws against cannabis. What they can do is repeal or modify their own laws. Historically the vast majority of prosecutions in the US have been under state, not federal laws.

Nothing requires a state to enforce Federal law.

States can also forbid their police and other employees and officials from cooperating in cannabis cases, passing information to federal law enforcement, or holding accused persons when no Federal warrant is yet available. State support and personnel has often been important to federal investigations.

All of this can make it much harder for the FBI and other federal agencies to pursue cannabis cases in states that have "legalized" cannabis.

Moreover, as a matter of policy, not law, the Justice Department has, in general, declined to pursue cannabis cases in such states. This policy could be changed at any time.

  • So dispensaries in e.g. Oregon are actually illegal, but the federal government doesn't care?
    – Someone
    Jun 30, 2022 at 4:03
  • @Someone I wouldn't day "doesn't care" exactly. Sone officials care a lot. But for the moment, the policy is not to aggressively enforce those laws against such establishments. One issue is that aggressive enforcement might lead to jury nullification, a thing the federal prosecutors would not like publicized. Jun 30, 2022 at 4:07
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    Should point out that in this specific instance, the proper government agency to enforce drug laws is the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Typically in the United States, most crime is dealt with by state/local law enforcement and federal law enforcement is called in to deal with bigger problems than drug sales in a state which legally allows them.
    – hszmv
    Jun 30, 2022 at 15:03

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