Marijuana legalization is sweeping the country. It has already spread to five states and the nation’s capital, and could be on its way to other places as well.
So what exactly is marijuana legalization? How does it differ from other avenues of cannabis reform? How do states approach the cannabis issue? And what about the feds?
Terminology is important, although it isn’t always used correctly. The distinctions between the different levels of marijuana reform are critical, as activities that pass legal scrutiny in one place may lead to fines or even jail time in another.
What Is Marijuana Legalization?
The legalization of marijuana means that, as long as you abide by the state-specific cannabis laws, you will not get arrested, fined or convicted for the use, possession and cultivation of marijuana. Legalization also allows a retail market to be established where people can purchase cannabis. Each state has different laws regarding the specifics of marijuana legalization, so make sure you are in the know.
Where Is Marijuana Legal?
Cannabis use has been “legalized” in five states – Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and California – plus the District of Columbia. The drug has been “decriminalized” in 14 other states. And medical marijuana is allowed in 28. In the five states that have legalized, adults over 21 may now buy, use, and possess relatively small amounts of cannabis, usually no more than 2 ounces. In Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, the cultivation, processing, and retail sale of the drug is also currently allowed.
Colorado – The Centennial State legalized medicinal use of marijuana in 2000 and recreational use in 2012. The state’s laws allow the possession, cultivation, use, commercial farming and retail sale of marijuana.
Washington – While medical marijuana has been available in Washington state since before the turn of the century, recreational marijuana use of legalized in 2012. The state’s first cannabis retail stores opened July 2014.
Oregon – The Beaver State legalized the recreational possession, use and cultivation of marijuana at the ballot in 2014. Medical marijuana has been allowed in the state since 1998. Judging by the smooth implementation of legalization, it appears that Oregon learned from the two states to legalize before it.
Alaska – Alaska also legalized the medicinal use of marijuana back in 1998, and the state’s voters opted to legalize the drug for recreational use in 2014.
District of Columbia – Marijuana was legalized in D.C. by ballot initiative in 2014, shortly after the drug became decriminalized . The future of legalization in the District remains uncertain, however, as the purchase and sale of cannabis remains illegal.
California – Voters in California legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2016 by approving Prop 64., also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA). Residents in the Golden State can now possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis without penalty, and grow up to six plants at home.
Legalization vs. Decriminalization
Journalists often use the terms “legalization” and “decriminalization” interchangeably. Technically they’re right, since both approaches remove criminal penalties.
True legalization means that a state allows a full legal marijuana industry where adults can buy, possess, and use the drug freely. Laws against public consumption and high driving still apply, but enforcement is typically lighter in these states.
But there are two big practical differences. For one thing, states that decriminalize still penalize those caught carrying marijuana, even if only with small fines. For another, these states don’t allow any kind of legal retail market for the drug. Growing, processing, shipping, or selling weed can be a felony in many of these places.
In other words, “decriminalization” means you can’t go to jail for possession, but you can go to jail for selling, making, or transporting marijuana.
Medical marijuana, on the other hand, is a legal system in which patients can get prescriptions for weed to treat their disorders. In most of these states, access is limited to patients who suffer from at least one of a short list of severe medical problems that can be alleviated with pot.
These disorders can include glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), HIV/AIDS, cancer and nausea, among others. These laws don’t cover most other conditions, though that’s likely to change in coming years.