Federal legalization of cannabis may be coming to the United States sooner than anyone could have predicted. In a recent CNBC interview, FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, hinted that cannabis legalization could be imminent, calling it “an inevitability,” and further remarking that “obviously, it’s happening at the state level…it’s going to happen at the federal level at some point soon.”

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During the recent interview, Gottlieb actually didn’t make any concrete statements regarding when, exactly, federal legalization of cannabis might occur, choosing instead to err on the side of caution. Indeed, throughout the brief interview, Gottlieb made a careful distinction between medical cannabis and “botanical cannabis,” remarking that “there is no demonstrated medical use of botanical marijuana. That’s the bottom line.” 

Um, what?

“So, there is a pathway for evaluating the active ingredients in marijuana as safe and effective drugs, and that pathway’s open to companies that do proper research,” said Gottlieb in another MSNBC interview last month, placing significant emphasis on the importance of continued research into the subject, and leaving the door open to industry to pave the way forward.


Photo of dry medical marijuana buds with shallow DOF iStock / UrosPoteko

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A Change In Demeanor

These recent statements are especially significant because the FDA commissioner has previously made strong statements against the legalization of marijuana. For example, in another CNBC interview this fall, Gottlieb said,

“I’m worried about the inhalation of a product and the risk associated with that. I’m worried about the perception that somehow there are no risks associated with youth use of the product. I think we all need to be deeply concerned about that in the same way we’re deeply concerned about youth access to e-cigarettes and nicotine. We should be even more concerned about youth access to marijuana and cannabis.”

Although subtle, Gottlieb’s most recent statements could be a signal that broader changes are, indeed, around the corner. Advocates of cannabis legalization across that country have been eagerly awaiting changes on the federal level for years. Indeed, with so many states having already passed legislation, making at least medical cannabis legal on a state level, the idea that marijuana remains illegal on the federal level is starting to seem a little backwards, if not downright ridiculous. Under federal law in the U.S., marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I narcotic, without any therapeutic benefit.

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Across the country, medical cannabis patients and their providers, however, would beg to differ. According to results of research published in 2018 in the medical journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, “the majority of surveyed physicians support MMJ [medical marijuana] as an option for patients,” citing pain as the most common condition physicians recommended medical cannabis for.

As of this month, a total of thirty-three states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized some form of cannabis. Here’s the breakdown: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and D.C. have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Medical cannabis has been legalized in Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Utah.