Editor’s note: Three more states have approved some form of marijuana for medical use since this article was published. They are: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
April 2, 2014 -- Medical marijuana moved up the legislative agenda in many states this year -- even in the most conservative parts of the country.
Utah became the 21st state to approve medical marijuana in late March when Gov. Gary Herbert signed the legislation into law.
In Maryland, lawmakers are working on a bill that would expand the availability of medical marijuana.
And legislatures in eight other states are looking at legalizing medical marijuana in 2014.
In Florida, voters will consider a ballot measure in November to legalize medical marijuana. Activists are working on getting medical marijuana on the ballot in Nebraska and Ohio and have until this summer to gather signatures. Alabama may allow people to possess marijuana as long as they're using it for medical reasons. Indiana may ease the penalties for possessing marijuana.
"It's a movement that has a groundswell of grassroots support," says Dianne Hoffmann, director of the law and health program at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore. "People are going to their legislators and saying they find it helpful to their illness, and these are sympathetic cases a lot of the time."
Legislatures in four states -- Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi -- also considered medical marijuana laws, but those bills did not pass.
Changing Attitudes About Marijuana
Marijuana is classified under federal law as an illegal drug with no medical value, but 21 states and Washington, DC, have rules that allow medical marijuana. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized it for recreational use as well. A recent WSJ/NBC poll showed that 55% of adults across the country think marijuana should be legalized and sold by a regulated business.
"We are reaching a critical mass," Hoffman says. "Enough states have passed medical marijuana laws that state legislators can say, 'Well, this many states have passed it, so it can't be that disastrous.'"
Also fueling the activity is President Obama's decision not to enforce the federal law. The Justice Department has said that federal prosecutors shouldn't enforce federal marijuana laws as long the states are following their own rules.
"So as long as there isn't a broad-based federal crackdown, states will continue to do what they want when it comes to marijuana," says John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, DC. "And the polls are giving legislators cover to support medical marijuana laws."
States Taking Action
Here's a roundup of medical marijuana legislation in 2014.
Utah: The state passed a bill this month to legalize for medical use a marijuana extract made of less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana that causes the "high" in marijuana.
Maryland: A bill is pending to expand a 2013 law that allows state medical institutions to use marijuana for research. The bill would give patients more access by allowing more doctors and others to provide marijuana for medical reasons.
Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin: All have legislation pending that would allow marijuana for medical purposes.
In addition to the pending state law legalizing medical marijuana, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in January that allows medical centers to use marijuana for research.