Until lately, all marijuana use in the United States was illegal. However, in recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states legalizing marijuana use. Most states began by allowing the use of medical marijuana for certain medical conditions, such as cancer, epilepsy and Crohn’s disease. Following that, the trend for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana began.
Since these trends began, laws governing the use, possession, and sale of marijuana have seen drastic changes. This refers to changes in state law. As of 2018, it is important to note that in terms of federal law, marijuana use remains illegal.
Federal Law: Marijuana use is still prohibited by federal law, whether the use be medical or recreational. Marijuana remains a Schedule I illegal drug under federal law, making it a crime to use, possess or sell marijuana. Different Attorney Generals have taken different stances on whether or not they will pursue various marijuana issues, such as medical marijuana.
During the administration of President Barack Obama, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum that stated that the federal government would not attempt to prosecute the use of marijuana in states that had legalized it in some fashion. However, this memorandum was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January of 2018.
State Law: States throughout the U.S. vary a good bit in how they regulate the use of marijuana. There are three basic categories of laws regarding marijuana use:
- Medicinal Use refers to the use of marijuana to treat medical conditions. It requires written authorization from a physician.
- Recreational Use refers to the use of marijuana for recreational purposes only.
- Decriminalization Laws are laws that have relaxed criminal penalties concerning certain amounts of marijuana or areas where marijuana is found, such as in one’s home.
States/Districts Where Marijuana is Legal for Recreational Use
In states where recreational use of marijuana has been legalized, it has been legalized for adult use, which generally means for people who are age 21 and up. Amounts that may be possessed varies by state. Most states allow for the possession of larger quantities in the home, and lesser quantities when traveling outside the home. Recreational states also allow for the cultivation of marijuana plants by private individuals. How many plants an individual may cultivate varies by state.
Recreational states have also developed commercial industries for the cultivation and sale of marijuana. Different laws apply to those with commercial licenses.
The following are states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized:
- Washington D.C.
States Where Medical Marijuana is Legal
Many other states have not thus far legalized marijuana for recreational use, but have passed laws broadly allowing the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions. Laws in these states typically define the medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana use.
For those individuals with qualifying conditions, there is a registry they may sign up for, which provides them evidence (if stopped by police) that their possession of marijuana is legal. Amounts that may be possessed will vary by state. Many medical states have allowed for medical marijuana dispensaries.
There are also a few states which do not allow the smoking of marijuana for medical purposes, but allow cannabis-infused products to be consumed for medical purposes.
Additionally, there are a few states that have not passed laws allowing for broad medical marijuana use, but which have permitted marijuana used in certain very limited situations (for very specific medical conditions).
In states where medical use is permitted, but not recreational use, laws stating penalties for recreational use remain. As of 2018, these are the following states that have passed laws broadly allowing medical marijuana:
- Louisiana (cannabis-infused products only, no smoking);
- New Hampshire;
- New Jersey;
- New Mexico;
- New York;
- North Dakota;
- Rhode Island;
- Utah; and
- West Virginia (cannabis-infused products only, no smoking).
States with No Broad Legalization of Marijuana, Either Recreational or Medical
The remainder of states in the U.S. have not passed laws allowing for the recreational use of marijuana, or laws allowing for the broad use of medical marijuana.
In some cases, individual states might have very narrow exceptions allowing medical marijuana for conditions such as very severe epilepsy. However, these states do not allow medical marijuana generally. The following states have not legalized recreational or broad medical use:
- North Carolina;
- South Carolina;
- South Dakota;
- Wisconsin; and
States that Have Decriminalized Marijuana in Certain Amounts
The following states have decriminalized the possession of marijuana in certain amounts. Decriminalization laws allow for lesser penalties for marijuana possession, usually based on the amount of marijuana possessed.
As of 2018, Nebraska, Mississippi and North Carolina have not legalized either medical or recreational marijuana use. The remaining states in the list below have legalized medical use:
- New Hampshire;
- New York;
- North Carolina;
- Ohio; and
- Rhode Island.
Should I Contact an Attorney If I am Facing Charges for Marijuana?
Laws regarding marijuana use vary by state and can change from year to year after elections and new legislation. If you have been charged with a marijuana-related offense, but believe you are protected under your state’s marijuana laws, then you should seek the advice of a criminal attorney in your state.