Marijuana Decriminalization in the United States

A significant number of US states have legalized recreational marijuana or decriminalized minor marijuana possession, despite it remaining illegal due to federal marijuana laws. However, a few conservative states will not legalize recreational cannabis and have severe marijuana offenses for possession, consumption, and cultivation.

What is decriminalization?

Decriminalization is the practice of reducing criminal penalties for cannabis possession. Decriminalization will often reform marijuana laws and change sentences from a criminal offense to a civil fine. However, this is typically only the case for minor possession of around one ounce or less. Harsher cannabis offenses often remain for more significant charges and those who illegally cultivate or distribute a marijuana product.

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana and cannabis plants are often thought to be the same thing; however, the two terms are not exactly interchangeable. Cannabis refers to the broader plant species and can encompass all products made from Cannabis sativa. There are about 170 different cannabis species, including marijuana plants and hemp.

Often referred to as pot or weed, marijuana is explicitly referring to the products made from dried flowers or buds of the plant. They can include flowers, stems, and leaves. The main psychoactive compound is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. It also contains CBD, while hemp contains no THC and only CBD.

Weed is typically consumed through smoking but may also be ingested, added to food, and used topically. When smoked, THC enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. The second most active cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which does not give the same psychoactive effects as THC. 

Today several different strains can be bred to induce different responses in the user. Some marijuana plants are designed to help with insomnia, while others are meant to be energizing. Different strains are used for different occasions based on the desired effect. The effects of marijuana may include relaxation, euphoria, increased appetite, altered perception, and impaired judgment.

The History of U.S. Decriminalization Laws

Marijuana first arrived in the United States in the early 1600s. The Jamestown colonists grew hemp, a variety of cannabis low in THC and do not have psychoactive effects, for use in making ropes, sails, and clothing. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp on their plantations.

At that time, marijuana was not used for recreation or medicine but primarily as a textile fiber. In the early 1800s, marijuana began to be used for medicinal purposes. People believed it could cure various illnesses, including asthma, cough, and venereal disease.

Marijuana began to be used as an ingredient in many patent medicines. For example, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which was popular at the time, contained up to 9% marijuana.

The Politics of Cannabis

The use of marijuana as medicine was threatened by the increasing popularity of pharmaceutical drugs in the early 1900s. The pharmaceutical industry began spreading propaganda linking marijuana to crime and violence in response.

Marijuana legislation first came to the attention of U.S. officials in the early 1900s. In 1906, California became the first state to outlaw marijuana. By the 1930s, all states had some laws against legalizing cannabis.

The federal government made cannabis an illegal substance and outlawed possessing or selling marijuana with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This Marijuana Tax Act effectively criminalized the cannabis plant.

The act was based on a report by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was initially appointed to head the bureau by his uncle-in-law, Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the United States Treasury. Mellon hired Harry Anslinger to target immigrants to line the pockets of his friends in the pharmaceutical industry who were pushing for a prohibition on marijuana. 

While it is highly likely that Mellon had no problem with weed, he needed a way to make his friends money. Anslinger and sensationalized fear campaigns like Reefer Madness (1936) convinced the American public that marijuana led to drug crimes and had to be outlawed.

He also claimed stories of people driven insane by marijuana who then committed violent crimes. However, many people believe these claims were complete fabrications.

In 1970, marijuana was listed as a Schedule 1 drug, categorized as highly addictive and dangerous based on being without medical value under the Controlled Substances Act.

CBD has become a prevalent substance and is found in many different markets, including tinctures and remedies for pets. CBD is typically acceptable under all medical marijuana laws and has become a popular over-the-counter option for anxiety, relaxation, pain management, and more for humans and their furry friends.

CBD-derived from hemp is legal on the federal level, and cannabis-derived CBD is legal in certain areas dependent on state law. 

Recent and current research has shown that cannabis has medicinal benefits and can help manage certain conditions. There has been a growing movement to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in recent years. In the early 1800s, pot began to be used for medicinal purposes despite the chance of a criminal record for possession.

People believed it could cure various illnesses, including asthma, cough, and venereal disease. In 1944, the “La Guardia Report” found that marijuana was not a dangerous drug and recommended decriminalizing it. Since then, many people have campaigned for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, but there is still no national consensus on the issue.

The First States to End Cannabis Prohibition

In 1996, California became the first state to initiate marijuana law reform and legalize marijuana for medical use. Today, nineteen states plus the District of Columbia allow people to use marijuana for specific medical conditions such as chronic pain and intractable epilepsy.

Several other state lawmakers, such as South Dakota, are expected to consider legalizing marijuana sales in upcoming years. There has been significant support for legalizing recreational marijuana use in recent years, and recreational cannabis sales have skyrocketed in legal states.

In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2017, California became the most significant state to legalize recreational marijuana.

Currently, 18 states where recreational marijuana is legal at a state level and 36 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have approved medical cannabis programs. Many states allow home cultivation of up to six plants per resident.

States like New Mexico have even set a Cannabis Regulation Act to legalize the marijuana industry for their residents fully. Organizations like Marijuana Policy Project are fighting for an update to cannabis laws all over the country.

The Rise of Marijuana Legalization

Despite growing support, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The federal government has not yet taken any action to change this, but it is possible in the future. Despite the legal status of marijuana, many people use marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. A recent Gallup poll shows that 55% of Americans support legalizing recreational use, up from 16% in 1969.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of prescription-strength CBD in the form of the drug Epidiolex associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. The drug can be used in patients two years of age and older. Epidolex is the first FDA-approved drug with a purified substance derived from marijuana.

Decriminalized States

Since Colorado legalized cannabis in 2012, more and more states are decriminalizing marijuana at the very least.  Some states have legalized it medically, while others have legalized it recreationally and established a marijuana regulation program as well. 

The vast range of laws from state to state makes for an uphill legal battle for dispensaries and cannabis cultivators.  It can be challenging to have your company insured since weed is technically still federally illegal.  This has recently prompted cannabusiness owners to invest in technology programs that can offer security and protection again theft and miscellaneous issues that may arise. 

There aren’t many states left that still consider cannabis entirely illegal.  Many states, such as Tennessee, have legalized delta-8 and hemp sales but still haven’t budged on legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational cannabis use.

Three states haven’t decriminalized or legalized any hemp-related or cannabis products: Kansas, Nebraska, and Idaho. However, people are actively fighting for reform, and legislative updates in these states, so possible changes will come soon for residents and cannabis-related drug offenders.

  • Recreational
  • Medical
  • Decriminalized
  • Illegal
State Legalization Status Adult Use Medical Marijuana Decriminalized
Alabama Medical Some Areas
Alaska Fully Legal
Arizona Fully Legal
Arkansas Medical
California Fully Legal
Colorado Fully Legal
Connecticut Fully Legal
Delaware Decriminalized & Medical
Florida Medical Some Areas
Georgia Medical Some Areas
Hawaii Decriminalized & Medical​
Idaho Illegal
Illinois Fully Legal
Indiana Illegal
Iowa Medical
Kansas Illegal
Kentucky Illegal
Louisiana Decriminalized & Medical​​
Maine Fully Legal
Maryland Decriminalized & Medical​​​
Massachusetts Fully Legal
Michigan Fully Legal
Minnesota Decriminalized & Medical​​​​
Mississippi Medical
Missouri Decriminalized & Medical​​​​
Montana Fully Legal
Nebraska Illegal
Nevada Fully Legal
New Hampshire Decriminalized & Medical​​​​​
New Jersey Fully Legal
New Mexico Fully Legal
New York Fully Legal
North Carolina Illegal
North Dakota Decriminalized & Medical
Ohio Decriminalized & Medical
Oklahoma Medical Some Areas
Oregon Fully Legal
Pennsylvania Medical Some Areas
Rhode Island Decriminalized & Medical
South Carolina Illegal
South Dakota Medical Some Areas
Tennessee Illegal
Texas Medical Some Areas
Utah Medical
Vermont Fully Legal
Virgina Fully Legal
Washington Fully Legal
Washington, DC Fully Legal
West Virginia Medical
Wisconsin Illegal
Wyoming Illegal

Learn More about Cannabis Decriminalization Laws

Below we have included additional resources, including news and activism websites for decriminalizing cannabis, as well as marijuana policy and legalization efforts in the United States.