Under federal law, marijuana is considered a Schedule I substance and it is illegal to use, possess, cultivate, or distribute. While each state has its own marijuana laws, they cannot overturn or preempt federal law.  Therefore, it is important to understand the federal penalties for marijuana possession and distribution.

The Obama Administration discouraged federal prosecution of marijuana users when state law permitted recreational or medicinal use. However, it is unclear what will happen under the current administration. To date, May 2017, the President and Attorney General have issued mixed messages about the enforcement of federal marijuana laws.

What Amount of Marijuana Do I Have to Carry to Violate Federal Law?

While federal authorities typically focus on high volume distributors, there are sentencing guidelines for possessing even the smallest amounts of marijuana. They include:

  • First offense: a misdemeanor involving up to a year of incarceration and a $1,000 fine,
  • Second offense: a misdemeanor involving a mandatory minimum of 15 days (and up to two years) of incarceration and a $2,500 fine, and
  • Third offense or more: a misdemeanor or felony involving a mandatory minimum of 90 days (and up to three years) of incarceration and a $5,000 fine. 

Mandatory minimum sentencing is a controversial part of federal law. If an offense involves a mandatory minimum, the judge is required to impose at least the minimum sentence—and cannot take extenuating circumstances into account or offer alternative sentencing options. Additionally, you typically are ineligible for parole before you complete the mandatory minimum sentence.

What about Selling and Growing Marijuana?

If you are convicted of selling or cultivating significant amounts of marijuana, you will face strict federal penalties. (The gifting of small amounts of marijuana is treated as possession under federal law.) Federal sentences vary, depending on the scope of your production. They include:

  • Less than 50 plants or 50 kg: felony involving up to five years of incarceration and a $250,000 fine,
  • 50-99 plants or kilograms: felony involving up to 20 years of incarceration and a $1,000,000 fine,
  • 100-999 plants or kilograms: felony involving 5-40 years of incarceration and a $500,000 fine, and
  • 1,000 or more plants or kilograms: felony involving between 10 years to life and a $1,000,000 fine.

Sales to a minor or within 1,000 feet of a school, youth center, or other protected areas result in doubled penalties. And, if you are a repeat offender or convicted of trafficking, you may also face increased penalties and mandatory minimums.

What If I My State Permits Recreational or Medicinal Marijuana?

Federal law always preempts (or overrules) state laws. This means that even if your state has authorized you to grow or sell marijuana, federal agents can still arrest you. And, if you are found guilty, you will be sentenced under the federal guidelines (discussed above). 

If you grow or distribute marijuana legally in your state, you should contact a criminal lawyer about your rights, even if you haven't been arrested. A criminal lawyer can help you understand your rights and provide the best possible defense (if necessary).

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Criminal offenses involving marijuana laws often result in large fines and long jail sentences. If you are facing criminal charges involving marijuana, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced criminal attorney will be able to explain all the risks in greater detail, as well as the complex interaction of federal and state laws in this issue.