Legalizing a drug removes the prohibition over its production, sale or consumption, albeit with at least some government regulation, as is the case with alcohol.
Marijuana is the only drug to have been legalized in some parts of the world, including in Uruguay —the only nation to have legalized its recreational use. The Uruguayan government has a full monopoly over all stages from production to consumption, except for the six plants per household that are allowed under the law. Users can purchase and possess up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of marijuana, but cannot purchase or grow more than 480 grams (17 ounces) per year.
In the U.S., eight states and the District of Columbia have passed measures allowing for marijuana’s recreational use. Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, and California approved ballot initiatives in November 2016, adding to Oregon and Alaska that legalized in 2014, and Colorado and Washington, which legalized in 2012. For example, in both California and Colorado users can possess and purchase up 1 ounce although the laws providing for the actual sale of marijuana in California don’t take effect until 2018. Medicinal marijuana is now permitted in 28 states.
Although marijuana is now legal in several states, it remains on the U.S. federal government’s list of “controlled substances” as an illegal narcotic. Despite the violation of federal law under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and UN drug treaties, primarily the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the U.S. government has said it would not enforce federal penalties. Under the Obama Administration, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield suggested that ‘things have changed since 1961’ and the U.S. ‘must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate changes into those polices’. All countries should be able to ‘tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches, [while] other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs.’ This obviously is a significant departure from the traditional U.S. federal government’s policies to enforce the national prohibition of a drug like marijuana. It also calls into question whether other governments might begin to deviate from the enforcement of the UN drug treaties to address what they believe are their most pressing concerns, such as the perceived costs related to drug production and trafficking.