The marijuana debate has been in the news more frequently over the past four years. Applicable state laws regarding possession and use differ greatly across the United States, and many are in conflict with federal law. Navigating these laws can be complicated, but it is imperative that anyone using or carrying marijuana understand exactly what type of activity is allowed in their state and what activity can result in being ticketed, arrested, or convicted.
Federal Law & Penalties
If you live in a state that has legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use, it may surprise you to know that you still violate federal law when you possess, buy, or sell it. These conflicting laws mean you can be charged with a federal crime for actions allowed under the laws of your state. It is important to note that state laws will not serve as a valid defense if you should find yourself in federal court on drug charges related to the sale, use, or possession of marijuana.
The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) classifies drugs into five “Schedules” based on factors such as their potential for abuse. The drugs considered most harmful, having a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, are classified as Schedule 1. Although several studies have proven marijuana to have medical benefits, it is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and LSD.
A first offense of possession of marijuana of any amount is considered a misdemeanor and can result in imprisonment up to one year and a minimum fine of $1,000. For a second conviction, the penalty increases to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 days, up to a maximum of two years, and a fine of up to $2,500. Any subsequent conviction for possession results in a mandatory minimum sentence of 90 days, up to a maximum of three years, and a fine of up to $5,000.
The distribution of less than 50 kilograms of marijuana is classified as a felony and is punishable by five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. If an individual distributes 50-99 kg, the penalty increases to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $1 million. Conviction for the distribution of 100-999 kg will result in 5-40 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $2 million.
Distribution to minors
The distribution of more than 5 grams of marijuana to a minor doubles the possible penalties. Possible penalties also are doubled for distribution within 1,000 feet of a playground or school, or within 100 feet of a public pool or youth center.
The unauthorized sale or importation of drug paraphernalia carries a punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment. The CSA defines drug paraphernalia as equipment that is used to produce, conceal, and consume illicit drugs. Some items, such as water pipes, vaporizers, bongs, and bowls can be sold legally anywhere as long as the sale is “for tobacco use only;” however, once a new pipe or bong is used with marijuana, it becomes subject to the prohibitions of federal law.
In states where medical or recreational use of marijuana is legalized, state law conflicts with the applicable federal laws. As noted above, when federal and state drug laws are in conflict, federal law always trumps state law. Although previous federal administrations agreed not to challenge state laws legalizing marijuana, this has changed under the Trump administration. In January 2018, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded orders set by President Obama that discouraged the enforcement of federal laws in states where marijuana is legal. It remains to be seen whether, and to what extent, federal agents will take steps to once again enforce federal laws against marijuana in those states where it is now legal under state law.
The term “medical marijuana” refers to the cultivation, use, or possession of marijuana for medical reasons. There is a debate concerning medical use, but an increasing number of states (listed below) have legalized the use of medical marijuana, removing criminal penalties for prescribing doctors and patients. Reform legislation has been introduced that would effectively end federal prohibition of medical marijuana, allowing industries to take steps toward research improvement. For example, if passed, The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARES) Act would amend the Controlled Substances Act by decreasing marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, easing restrictions on researchers, and allowing states to set their own policies for medical marijuana.
Recreational use debate
Recreational use of marijuana means that the drug is used without any medical justification. There is an ongoing debate about whether the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana should be legalized for recreational use. Among the arguments for legalizing recreational use of marijuana are increased tax revenue and the benefits of replacing toxic pharmaceuticals that lead to increased opioid addictions. Critics, however, object to the increased use of marijuana by younger people they argue would likely result from legalization.
The 30 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana for adult medical or recreational use are listed below. Although each of the states listed has legalized usage, it is important to keep in mind that the laws with regards to usage, and possession vary drastically. Use the following links to read more about marijuana laws in your state.
Medical Use Only
Medical & Recreational Use
Bianca Ybarra is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center and a member of the State Bar of Texas.