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Your Guide To Cannabis Legalization By State

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Cannabis (commonly referred to as marijuana) is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S. At least 18% of Americans used it at least once in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [1] Marijuana and Public Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 5/9/2022. . Despite its prevalence, there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding its use and legality.

There are both federal and state regulations pertaining to cannabis—and they are often at odds with each other. These contradictions create a great deal of confusion for those curious to know whether it’s legal to buy, sell or use cannabis for medical—or even recreational—purposes. If you do plan on buying or using cannabis, knowing the laws in your state is key. Use this guide to determine what is and isn’t legal where you live.

What Is Cannabis, and Is It Legal?

Marijuana, cannabis and hemp are three terms that are similar and often mistaken for one another, says Mackenzie Slade, the director of Cannabis Public Policy Consulting. While hemp is defined as a cannabis sativa plant that contains no more than .3% of the intoxicatingly psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by dry weight, Slade says “marijuana” and “cannabis” are used interchangeably in terms of legal status.

Both marijuana and cannabis refer to the intoxicating component of the cannabis plant commonly consumed by smoking, eating, vaping or topical application. “Cannabis is a plant of the cannabis genus whose flowers and plant material have concentrated amounts of psychoactive chemicals,” explains Slade. “Some of these psychoactive chemicals can be found in other plants; however, cannabis is the only plant that produces the psychoactive cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinol (CBD).” Meanwhile, hemp doesn’t contain high levels of intoxicating compounds.

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Cannabis legalization is a hot topic. While federal laws surrounding the legality of cannabis exist, additional bills regarding its legal status have been debated in the House and Senate as recently as April 2022 with the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. Additionally, state legislatures have their own laws on cannabis production, sale and use, adding another layer of complication to its legal status.

Federal Regulations

Marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substance Act, which went into effect in 1970. “It’s not only illicit, but also deemed to have abuse potential and no medical benefits,” says Slade. She adds that with this scheduling status, cannabis is subjected to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as well as Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act. “It’s federally illicit to use cannabis for adult use or medicinal purposes, with the exception of one prescription drug, Epidiolex,” she says, adding that this drug, which is used to treat seizure disorders, contains CBD, not THC.

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On a federal level, marijuana’s legal status hasn’t changed since the 1970s, but there are a couple of ways the federal laws have evolved. The 2013 Cole Memorandum provided guidance for the priorities of marijuana-related federal investigation and prosecution. “The Cole Memo essentially outlined guidelines and priorities for state-regulated cannabis programs to remain within, including prohibiting sales across state lines, prohibiting sales to minors and implementing tracking systems that prevent divergence,” says Slade.

Next, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which was passed by the House in April 2022, proposed descheduling marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act. It also includes expungement of prior convictions related to marijuana. As of May 2022, this bill is with the Senate, though it’s not expected to pass because only three Republican representatives support it.

Cannabis Legalization by State

The movement to decriminalize marijuana started in the 1960s before it was even labeled an illicit substance. There was a growing interest in cannabis use for medical purposes, and in 1996, California became the first state to pass the Medical Marijuana Law (MML), which legalized cannabis use for medical reasons. Currently, 37 states have passed the MML, making it legal to use cannabis for medical reasons in these states. There are also 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) where using cannabis recreationally is legal.

“The process [to make marijuana legal] is different for every state based on its legislative process,” says Slade. For instance, she explains that states in which recreational marijuana use was adopted the earliest—including California and Colorado—a citizen ballot initiative was drawn up and voted on that enabled laws to allow for cannabis regulation.

“Now, we’re seeing a shift where legalization is happening at the legislature level, which is a separate mechanism than a citizen initiative,” says Slade. “Illinois was the first state to pass legislation establishing a taxed and regulated cannabis program through their legislature.”

The chart below details the current legal status of cannabis in every state.

State Cannabis Legal Status Legalization Year Additional Details Alabama Medical use only 2021 Must have one of 15 qualifying conditions and a physician’s recommendation; recreational marijuana is illegal and a possession charge results in a mandatory 6-month suspension of your driver’s license Alaska Fully legal 2014 Arizona Fully legal 2020 Arkansas Medical use only 2016 Must have one of 12 qualifying conditions and a physician’s recommendation; recreational marijuana is illegal and a possession charge results in a mandatory 6-month suspension of your driver’s license California Fully legal 2016 Colorado Fully legal 2012 Connecticut Fully legal 2021 Delaware Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2011 (decriminalized in 2015) Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation; cannabis was legalized in May 2022 by the General Assembly, but the bill has not yet been vetoed or signed District of Columbia Fully legal 2014 Florida Medical use only 2016 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation Georgia CBD with THC Only 2015 Approved for medical use only (must be a medical cannabis oil up to 5% THC); cannabis use decriminalized in the cities of Atlanta and Savannah and in the following jurisdictions: Clarkston, South Fulton, Forest Park, Kingsland, Statesboro, Macon-Bibb County, Chamblee and Tybee Island Hawaii Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2000 (decriminalized in 2020) No qualifying conditions—just need a physician’s recommendation; allows for home cultivation Idaho Fully illegal N/A Illinois Fully legal 2019 Indiana Fully illegal N/A CBD legalized for any use up to 0.3% THC, but no separate laws for higher THC concentration products; in 2019 possession was decriminalized in Marion County Iowa CBD with THC Only 2014 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation; CBD oil only, with a limit of 4.5g of THC over a 90-day period Kansas Fully illegal N/A Claire and Lola’s Law (2019) allows possession and treatment of up to 5% THC CBD oil if used for treating debilitating conditions, but it’s not fully legalized for medical use in the state Kentucky Fully illegal N/A Louisiana Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2015 (decriminalized in 2021) No qualifying conditions—just need a physician’s recommendation Maine Fully legal 2016 Maryland Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2013 (decriminalized in 2016) No qualifying conditions; must receive a recommendation from a provider participating in the medical marijuana program, but not limited to physicians;
currently a bill is in place to legalize cannabis on or after July 2023 if a late 2022 ballot measure passes Massachusetts Fully legal 2016 Michigan Fully legal 2018 Minnesota Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2014 (decriminalized in 1976) Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation Mississippi CBD with THC Only 2014 (decriminalized in 1978) Cannabis-derived CBD oil legal with medical cannabis license; limited number of accepted conditions; must be obtained from University of Mississippi; cannot exceed 0.5% THC Missouri Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2018 (decriminalized in 2014) Has qualifying conditions, but the description is broad and ultimately boils down to just needing a physician’s recommendation; allows for home cultivation Montana Fully legal 2020 Nebraska Fully illegal N/A Possession charges reduced to a civil infraction in 1979 Nevada Fully legal 2016 New Hampshire Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2013 (decriminalized in 2017) Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation after all other treatment methods have failed New Jersey Fully legal 2020 New Mexico Fully legal 2021 New York Fully legal 2021 North Carolina CBD with THC Only 2015 (decriminalized in 1977) Cannabis-derived CBD oil legal with medical cannabis license; however, the program is limited to a very small subset of the population of study participants and patients suffering specific conditions North Dakota Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2016 (decriminalized in 2019) Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation Ohio Decriminalized and medical use allowed 2016 (decriminalized in 1975) Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation; some municipalities in Ohio have further decriminalized possession of larger amounts of cannabis Oklahoma Medical use only 2015 No qualifying conditions—just need a physician’s recommendation Oregon Fully legal 2014 Pennsylvania Medical use only 2016 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation; possession decriminalized in several of the largest municipalities Rhode Island Medical use only 2006 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation South Carolina CBD with THC Only 2014 CBD oil exceeding 0.9% THC legal with medical cannabis license; very restrictive list of qualifying conditions South Dakota Medical use only 2021 Recreational use was also legalized in 2021 but then struck down by the State Supreme Court in 2022; there’s a ballot measure in the November 2022 election for full legalization Tennessee CBD with THC Only 2015 CBD oil exceeding 0.9% THC legal with medical cannabis license; very restrictive list of qualifying conditions Texas CBD with THC Only 2015 Low-THC (up to 1%) CBD oil available for patients with qualifying conditions; some municipal decriminalization Utah Medical use only 2018 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation Vermont Fully legal 2020 Virginia Fully legal 2021 Washington Fully legal 2012 West Virginia Fully illegal 2017 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation Wisconsin CBD with THC Only 2017 Must have a qualifying condition and a physician’s recommendation; some municipal decriminalization Wyoming Fully illegal N/A
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As far as the future of cannabis legalization is concerned, Slade says to expect more change to come. “Because cannabis policy is so different across the country, I imagine federal legalization will ultimately give great deference to state regulations while allowing interstate commerce to begin under appropriate federal tax structures and monitoring,” she says. Allowing interstate commerce, she says, would change the way cannabis businesses operate and how customers buy marijuana significantly.

In other words, the conversation surrounding cannabis legalization is far from over.

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