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Where Is Marijuana Legal? A Guide to Marijuana Legalization

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 4/9/2021 Claire Hansen
a bowl of food: Marijuana on a scale at Virgil Grant's dispensary in Los Angeles, California on February 8, 2018. - Virgil Grant is riding the high on California's cannabis legalization, with a burgeoning empire that already comprises three dispensaries, two plantations and a line of apparel. His success has come as some compensation for the six years lost inside the federal prison system for dealing the drug. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Veronique DUPONT    (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images) © FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images Marijuana on a scale at Virgil Grant's dispensary in Los Angeles, California on February 8, 2018. - Virgil Grant is riding the high on California's cannabis legalization, with a burgeoning empire that already comprises three dispensaries, two plantations and a line of apparel. His success has come as some compensation for the six years lost inside the federal prison system for dealing the drug. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Veronique DUPONT (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Election Day in 2012, voters in Colorado approved a ballot initiative legalizing the recreational use and sale of cannabis, making the state the first in the U.S. to do so.

Sixteen other states, Washington, D.C., and Guam would go on to legalize the drug in the next nine years as public support for legalization rose rapidly – despite marijuana being illegal at the federal level.

Some strains of the cannabis plant – often called marijuana or weed – contain a psychoactive compound called THC that produces a "high" when ingested.

Today, support for marijuana legalization has become mainstream among Democratic politicians, and some Republicans also back the idea. State legislatures are grappling with if and how to legalize the drug, while several marijuana-related bills – including those aiming to decriminalize it on the federal level – have been introduced in Congress.

Opponents say marijuana poses a public health and safety risk, and some are morally against legalization. Proponents, however, argue that it is not as dangerous as alcohol and point to evidence that it has therapeutic benefits, such as stress and pain relief.

Advocates also see it as a money maker for states and a necessary social justice initiative. Marijuana laws have disproportionately affected people from minority communities, contributing to mass incarceration. States where the drug is legal have sought to retroactively address the consequences of marijuana prohibition, often including provisions allowing for the expungement or vacation of low-level marijuana convictions.

States where recreational marijuana is legal:

  • Colorado
  • Washington
  • Alaska
  • Oregon
  • Washington, D.C.
  • California
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • Michigan
  • Vermont
  • Guam
  • Illinois
  • Arizona
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • South Dakota
  • New York
  • Virginia

Retail sales from dispensaries are or will be allowed in all states where the drug is legal except for one: Vermont. Retailers there will start receiving licenses in October 2022. The District of Columbia has not yet established a regulatory agency for recreational cannabis, and officials in Guam were finalizing their marijuana licensing guidelines when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

States have their own processes for licensing dispensaries, but in all states where marijuana is legal, businesses that sell marijuana must have a license from the state to do so.

The sales are regulated and taxed by the states at varying rates. Some states implement an excise tax on the sales, which are taxes on a particular good – in this case, marijuana – levied on the seller, which typically passes it on to the consumer by including it in the product's price.

Provisions outlining the amount of marijuana an adult can legally possess, if adults can grow their own marijuana plants and how the tax revenue is spent vary from state to state.

Colorado - legalization measure approved November 2012

Adults over the age of 21 in Colorado can possess and give away up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants each, though residences are limited to 12 plants total no matter how many people live there. Using marijuana in public is illegal.

Retail purchases at licensed dispensaries are subject to standard sales tax, plus an additional 10% marijuana sales tax. A 15% excise tax is applied to the wholesale price of retail marijuana – that is, the price that businesses pay cultivators.

Washington - legalization measure approved November 2012

In Washington, adults over 21 can buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused edibles in solid form, 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquid products, and 7 grams of marijuana concentrates. It's illegal to consume marijuana in public, and recreational users can't grow the plants at home.

Retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries and there is a 37% excise tax on those sales.

Alaska - legalization measure approved November 2014

Alaskan adults over the age of 21 can possess and give away up to an ounce of marijuana and can grow up to six marijuana plants, though only three of those plants can be mature. It's illegal to consume the drug in public.

Retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries. The state levies an excise tax on the drug that the cultivator is responsible for paying.

Oregon - legalization measure approved November 2014

Adults in Oregon who are over 21 years old can possess up to an ounce of marijuana if they are in public and up to 8 ounces at home. Adults can also have up to 16 ounces of a marijuana product if it is in solid form, like an edible, or up to 72 ounces of a marijuana product in liquid form. Adults can grow up to four cannabis plants. It's illegal in Oregon to use marijuana in a public place.

Marijuana retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries and taxed at 17%, and cities and counties can add up to an additional 3% tax in some cases.

Washington, D.C. - legalization measure approved November 2014

It is legal for adults over 21 to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and to give up to 1 ounce of marijuana to another person. Adults can also grow up to six marijuana plants, three of which can be mature.

Recreational cannabis sales are not legal in D.C., as Congressional Republicans have consistently included language in appropriations bills that prevents the District from establishing an independent regulatory board. Without licensed retailers, D.C.’s adult-use marijuana trade relies on gifting services.

California - legalization measure approved November 2016

It is legal in California for an adult over 21 to possess, purchase or give away up to an ounce of cannabis and as much as 8 grams of concentrated cannabis. Adults can also cultivate up to six live cannabis plants. Smoking or ingesting marijuana is illegal in public places, as is using the drug while in a car.

Retail sales of cannabis at licensed dispensaries are subject to standard state sales tax and an excise tax of 15%. Local governments may also enact additional taxes on cannabis businesses.

Maine - legalization measure approved November 2016

People over 21 in Maine can use and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to six flowering and 12 immature marijuana plants.

A regulated retail market became operational in October 2020, though several owners saw limited product supplies. Maine imposes a 15% excise tax and a 10% sales tax on marijuana.

Massachusetts - legalization measure approved November 2016

Adults over 21 in Massachusetts can have up to an ounce of marijuana on their person and up to 10 ounces at home. Home cultivation is also permitted: Residents can grow up to six plants per person and up to 12 plants in a household of two or more people.

Sales are legal at licensed dispensaries. Sales are subject to standard state sales tax, as well as a state excise tax of 10.75%. Towns and cities can also levy up to a 3% tax on marijuana sales.

Nevada - legalization measure approved November 2016

Nevadans over 21 can have up to an ounce of marijuana and up to an eighth of an ounce of concentrated marijuana. Adults may also grow up to six plants, or 12 plants per household. It's illegal to use marijuana in public or in a car.

Retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries, and are subject to a 10% excise tax on top of state sales tax.

Michigan - legalization measure approved November 2018

It is legal for adults over 21 in Michigan to grow, consume and possess marijuana. The law allows individuals to grow up to 12 plants in a household, and to possess up to 2.5 ounces of the drug and 15 grams of concentrated marijuana.

The state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency began accepting applications for retail licenses in late 2019. Michigan now operates licensed retailers for recreational cannabis use, as well as provisioning centers for medical use, according to David Harns, interim communications director for Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Vermont - legalization measure approved January 2018

It is legal to grow and possess marijuana in Vermont, but not to buy or sell it – that’ll change in October 2022, when retailers will start receiving licenses. Adults over 21 can have up to an ounce of marijuana and can grow two mature and four immature marijuana plants per household.

Guam - legalization measure approved April 2019

Adults over the age of 21 can possess up to an ounce of marijuana and can grow up to six plants, though no more than three can be mature.

Guam’s Cannabis Control Board scrambled to establish trading guidelines earlier in 2020, but their progress was stopped by the coronavirus pandemic. While sales remain illegal, adults are allowed to gift up to an ounce of cannabis.

Illinois - legalization measure approved May 2019

As of January 2020, it’s legal for Illinois residents over 21 to possess 30 grams of marijuana, 5 grams of concentrated cannabis and products containing up to 500 milligrams of THC. Adults who are not Illinois residents can have half those amounts while in the state. Consumption remains illegal in public places.

Residents could initially purchase marijuana for adult use from licensed dispensaries, followed by a gradual rollout of recreational retail licenses. Sales are taxed based on how much THC the marijuana contains: Cannabis with more than 35% THC will be taxed at 25% while cannabis with less THC will be taxed at 10%. Though marijuana has become more potent over the years, it's still unusual for a strain to exceed 35% THC. Cannabis-infused products will be subject to a 20% tax. Local municipalities can also levy up to a 3% tax on sales.

New Jersey - legalization measure approved November 2020

New Jersey was among four new states to simultaneously back marijuana legalization measures on Election Day 2020. Nearly 67% of voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. The measure outlines that only adults over the age of 21 would be able to use cannabis. It authorized the existing state commission on medical cannabis to govern the market for recreational use, and made the cannabis trade subject to state and local taxes. On Feb. 22, 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation formally establishing the state’s recreational marketplace, while reducing penalties for underage possession of marijuana and alcohol.

Montana - legalization measure approved November 2020

Montana’s Election Day 2020 ballot featured two popular-vote measures that would regulate the use of recreational marijuana. Initiative 190 – which legalized the possession and use of limited amounts of cannabis by adults 21 and over – was approved by nearly 57% of voters, according to the Montana secretary of state. Montana Constitutional Initiative 118 – which allows the state legislature to set an age for marijuana use and consumption – passed with 58% of the vote.

South Dakota - legalization measure approved November 2020

South Dakota’s Constitutional Amendment A appeared on the 2020 ballot, passing with roughly 54% of the vote. The measure allows adults over 21 years old to possess and distribute up to 1 ounce of cannabis. A simultaneous measure to legalize medical marijuana was approved by nearly 70% of voters. The ballot measures will go into effect in July 2021, according to the Sioux Falls-based Argus Leader.

Arizona - legalization measure approved November 2020

Arizona’s Proposition 207 would allow limited marijuana use, possession and cultivation by adults over age 21; ban smoking it in public; establish state and local regulation of marijuana licensees; and allow marijuana offenses to be expunged. About 60% of voters supported the measure on Election Day.

New York - legalization measure approved March 2021

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act on March 31, 2021. The law allows individuals age 21 or older to possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis for recreational purposes, establishes two regulatory agencies to oversee its sale and distribution, and clears the way for individuals convicted of marijuana-related offenses to have their records expunged. Democrats in the State Assembly had been introducing legalization bills since 2013, but their efforts were unsuccessful due to disagreements with Cuomo, according to the New York Times.

Virginia - legalization measure approved April 2021

On April 7, 2021, both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly passed SB1406, with amendments put forth by Gov. Ralph Northam. Since the legislature approved the governor’s amendments, no further action was needed to pass the law, a staff member for Northam confirmed. The amended legislation will allow Virginians age 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of recreational marijuana as of July 1, 2021. While the law will also allow residents to grow up to four cannabis plants, the measure as enacted doesn’t establish a framework for licensing retail sales of adult-use marijuana.

Is marijuana legal at the federal level?

No. Marijuana is classified at the federal level as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that the government believes it to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Cultivating, distributing and possessing marijuana violates federal drug laws.

States that have legalized either recreational or medical marijuana have done so in direct conflict with the federal government, creating tension between the rights of states to create their own laws and the authority of the federal government.

The federal government has, however, generally taken a hands-off approach to marijuana prohibition enforcement in states where the drug is legal. In 2009, the Obama administration told federal prosecutors to consider not prosecuting people who distributed marijuana in accordance with state medical marijuana laws.

What is the Cole Memorandum?

In 2013, tIn 2013, the Justice Department issued perhaps the most influential memo on federal marijuana enforcement. Known as the Cole Memorandum, the Justice Department said it would not challenge states' legalization laws at that time and expected states to have robust enforcement efforts of their own.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo in 2018, and told prosecutors to use established prosecutorial principles and their own judgment when prosecuting – or declining to pursue – marijuana charges.

The Justice Department has in general declined to pursue cases where individuals are acting in compliance with state law, and it has also not challenged state legalization laws in court. Observers note that even after Cole’s withdrawal, most marijuana-related prosecutions by the Department of Justice have focused on more serious charges such as firearms or organized crime.

What does decriminalization mean?

Decriminalization is, broadly defined, the reduction of penalties for a certain criminal act or the process of reclassifying a criminal offense as a civil offense.

Twenty-six states have decriminalized low-level marijuana possession offenses, typically removing the possibility of jail time at least for first time-offenses, though the possibility of a fine or a criminal record remains in some places. Some states have reclassified the possession of small amounts of weed as a civil, instead of criminal, offense, while others have just reduced the penalties. In most of those states, repeat offenses, sales, distribution or possession of large amounts of marijuana can still land you in jail.

Of the states that have passed decriminalization measures, some have medical marijuana laws. Sixteen states have decriminalized marijuana but not legalized it in any form, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Decriminalization is often seen as a middle ground between full-blown legalization and strict, punitive drug policy that has disproportionately affected communities of color.

Where does the public stand on the issue?

A growing majority of Americans believe that recreational marijuana should be legal. A Gallup poll conducted in October 2019 found that 66% of U.S. adults think the drug should be legal. A Pew Research Center survey and the General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago found similar levels of support for marijuana legalization.

Americans have warmed significantly to the idea in recent years. Just 12% of U.S. adults supported legalization in 1969, according to Gallup – a figure that rose to 31% in 2000 before accelerating above 50% after 2013.

Democrats are more likely to support legalization, though a majority of Republicans were in favor of it in 2019, the Gallup poll found. People under age 30 are similarly more likely to back marijuana legalization – 81% of those respondents in 2019 – but 62% of Americans aged 50 to 64 also supported legalization, the poll found.

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