The Federal Government considers marijuana a Schedule I drug that is highly addictive and does not have accepted medical uses. For this reason, marijuana use, possession, and distribution are illegal under federal law. (There have been repeated attempts to reclassify marijuana, but as of when it was written, May 2017, they have been unsuccessful.) However, Americans’ perception of marijuana is changing dramatically. States have passed increasingly liberal marijuana laws.

Marijuana Possession Prosecution

Possession is the deliberate and knowing possession of an illegal controlled substance. Possession can be either actual or constructive.

  • Actual possession: When drugs are found on your person (such as in your pockets or hands).
  • Constructive possession: The drugs are not on your person but are so close by that possession can be imputed (such as in your vehicle).

To prove constructive possession, the government must prove you knew the drugs were present and had control over them.

Marijuana possession enforcement varies based on a series of factors:

  • Whether you are facing state or federal charges,
  • The amount of marijuana you possessed,
  • Whether you are a repeat offender, and
  • Whether there is evidence you were selling or distributing marijuana.

Depending on the circumstances of your case, you may face different penalties. Some marijuana charges simply involve a fine—while others involve significant jail sentences and mandatory minimum sentences.

Marijuana Possession Laws by Jurisdiction

Criminal laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. As discussed above, federal law prohibits all marijuana possession. Additionally, federal law preempts all state laws. This means that you can be charged with federal marijuana crimes even if your state permits certain types of marijuana use and possession.

Medical Marijuana Possession

Currently, 44 states have some type of medical marijuana program. While these programs vary from state to state, they typically allow people with specific medical conditions to purchase, cultivate, and use limited amounts of medicinal marijuana.

However, it is important that you follow your state’s licensing procedures. If you need help understanding your state’s medical marijuana laws, speak with a local criminal defense lawyer or your doctor.

Decriminalization of Marijuana Possession

A growing group of states has decriminalized certain types of marijuana possession. In these states, a first-time offender who is carrying a small amount of marijuana will not face jail time. Instead, a civil or criminal fine will be imposed.

As of May 2017, the following states have decriminalized first-time possession of marijuana:

  • Connecticut,
  • Delaware,
  • Illinois,
  • Maryland,
  • Minnesota (misdemeanor punishable by a fine),
  • Mississippi,
  • Missouri (misdemeanor punishable by a fine),
  • Nebraska,
  • New York,
  • North Carolina (misdemeanor punishable by a fine),
  • Ohio (misdemeanor punishable by a fine),
  • Rhode Island, and
  • Vermont.

A growing number of states have gone even further and legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Typically, you can only possess and use small amounts of recreational marijuana (which must be purchased at a state-licensed dispensary or retailer). Recreational marijuana use is legal in:

  • Alaska,
  • California,
  • Colorado,
  • District of Columbia,
  • Maine,
  • Massachusetts,
  • Nevada
  • Oregon, and
  • Washington.

State marijuana laws are changing rapidly. If you need help understanding your community’s rules and regulations, contact a criminal defense lawyer for help.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Am Charged with Marijuana Possession?

All drug charges should be taken seriously—they can lead to incarceration, large fines, and can make it difficult to find work and housing. If you have been charged with marijuana possession, contact a drug lawyer immediately. A lawyer can help you present the best possible defense and may be able to negotiate either a reduced sentence or deferred sentencing.