Updated October 1 2019
Marijuana legalization is sweeping the country. It has already spread to eleven 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.
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?
The map below shows the legal status of marijuana by state.
The legality of marijuana differs substantially depending on the state you’re in. Some states allow recreational use, some allow full medical marijuana, some only allow non-intoxicating CBD use, and a few still completely prohibit any form of the drug.
Timeline of Legalization
Cannabis is currently fully legal in ten places in the United States: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington State, and Washington, D.C. Some form of medical marijuana is available in nearly all other U.S. states.
How to Get Legal Marijuana?
How you get your hands on marijuana for recreational depends on what state you’re in. In most states with legal cannabis, residents are legally permitted to cultivate their own cannabis at home. There are varying conditions that growers must meet, such as keeping a limit on the number of mature plants, and keeping plants out of public view.
The most popular method of obtaining recreational marijuana is to purchase it from a dispensary. Adults over 21 may legally purchase marijuana for recreation at retail stores in states including Alaska, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, while there are no plans for such stores in the District of Columbia, where Congress has blocked any legal sale of cannabis for recreational use.
In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, a variety of stores sell marijuana for medicine, recreation, or both. Most stores have websites that indicate what type of customers they serve. It is also legal to gift small amounts of cannabis, provided nothing else of value changes hands.
What Are the Rules for Marijuana Cultivation?
It is legal to grow marijuana plants for recreational use in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. Of the jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for recreational use, only Washington State bans home grows.
Colorado allows adult residents to grow up to six plants on private property, though only three of them may be mature at the same time. The same is true in Alaska, while adults in Oregon may grow up to four plants and District of Columbia residents up to six.
For more information, view our article on marijuana cultivation laws by state.
What States Are Likely to Legalize Next?
More states are expected to legalize over the next few years. New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island are all possible battlegrounds for reform.
But you don’t have to be legal to enjoy marijuana in peace. Marijuana has been somewhat decriminalized in many other states including Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Maryland, and Connecticut.
Simple possession in any of these states is punished with a civil fine rather than jail time. The fines vary in size, but they’re typically no more than a few hundred dollars – a hefty sum but no worse than the average speeding ticket.
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.
MMJ Paves the Way for Full Legalization
It also can’t hurt to live in a state where medical cannabis is allowed. Recreational use and possession aren’t necessarily legal in these places, nor is retail sale, but it’s pretty easy to get away with it in most states that permit MMJ.
Nearly all states in the US have allow some degree of medical marijuana, even if that’s non-intoxicating CBD oil. California is best known for its program, probably the most liberal of its kind.
Other places tend to have tighter controls on medical pot; scoring MMJ in New Jersey without a real health condition is a hopeless task for most patients. Outside California, Hawaii may be the best place to use medicinal weed for recreational purposes.
Wherever you choose to smoke your dope, there are rules unique to every location. Legal possession limits, for example, are lower in Washington State and Oregon than they are in Alaska and Oregon. So choose wisely and above all, know the law before you light up.