Cannabis Laws by State: A Complete Guide for the US

Worried about penalties for lighting up? Following the complicated and contradictory laws between the federal and state governments can be difficult and confusing.

To avoid getting in serious trouble for this substance use, you need a comprehensive guide of cannabis laws by state that you can trust.

Recently, so many states have taken action to legalize cannabis use that it seems to be sweeping the nation. It’s easy to get excited and make plans to start using, but preparation is key.

Is it legal? What activities with cannabis are legal or criminalized? What does it mean when federal cannabis law is different from state law?

Using cannabis should be a pleasant experience, so read this guide to make sure you have nothing to worry about when you start.

Cannabis Laws

When politicians talk of legalization, it means that they are considering the removal of some or all criminal penalties related to the growth, possession, use, and selling of cannabis. In return, they will implement regulations on this activity.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 marked the first time the federal government took action to criminalize the use of marijuana. This act doesn’t exist in its original form today, but as a code under the new law of Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Under this new set of laws, cannabis is listed alongside LSD and heroin, among other drugs, all labeled as “Schedule I” substances.

Schedule I labeling means that scientists have deemed the substance as one of high risk. They believe that people who use the substance are at a heightened risk of abusing it and will receive no medicinal benefit from it.

California cannabis laws are ones for the history books. The state of California was the first to introduce legislation that would legalize the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Since then, 35 more states and some U.S. territories have taken action to move towards legalization on some level.

Why People Fight for Legalization

Proponents of legalization claim that marijuana has no lethal dose and no addictive properties. Cannabis is suggested to be safer than alcohol because it has only mild withdrawals and does not lead to abuse of harder drugs. Even federal studies have shown that that legalization has not led to an increase in teenage use.

There is an element of race involved with marijuana law history. Many people claim that the initial laws were targeting Mexican-Americans during the 1930s. President Nixon is accused of using drug policies to bolster himself against political enemies by denying users the right to vote.

Even today, many feel that cannabis policies are held up by racist intentions or enable systemic racism. Blacks are more likely to be arrested for use of marijuana, clocking in at being four times more likely than whites.

States have been moving towards legalization. The federal government, however, insists that cannabis is an illegal substance in all of its uses.

Despite this stance, the Justice Department decided in 2013 that it would not attempt to block states from passing legalization laws. In return, states had to ensure there were regulations in place. States would have to prevent underage use, trafficking, gang activity, and any accidents or violence related to the use of cannabis.

Different Types of Marijuana Use

Cannabis is not always as black and white as many people think. There are a lot of different variations of marijuana that are broken down by its chemical components. The most common forms are CBD and THC.

People who smoke nicotine often look for ways to get relief from withdrawals. A popular alternative to smoking cigarettes is marijuana, whether it is in its original form or in oils, edibles, and more.

People who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other chronic mental and physical illnesses often seek out CBD, THC, and marijuana for relief.

An attractive trait of CBD and THC is that you can buy them to experience the different properties of marijuana. For example, by using CBD, you can experience a calming effect and other benefits without the high of marijuana.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is an essential element of medicinal marijuana and is an active ingredient. The legal status of CBD is always changing but is widely available to buy and use with various degrees of regulation. The government still considers CBD the same category as marijuana.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. In other words, this is the chemical compound that gets you high when you consume cannabis. THC is more controversial because the high effects of marijuana are what make the public and the government most opposed to its use.

There are also products like Delta-8, which are THC analogs. It binds to similar receptors as cannabis but can allow you to experience the euphoria of being high without grogginess or disorientation. View for more about how these products can make you feel energized and uplifted.

Federal and state politicians have to keep all these variations and forms in mind when they craft policies for marijuana use.

Cannabis Laws By State

The legalization of marijuana remains confusing because the federal government and state laws often contradict each other. State law, however, remains an important part of citizens’ rights. Depending on what state you live in, you either have the right to use cannabis or it is a criminal activity.

The majority of states now have legalized cannabis in some way, whether it is for medicinal or recreational use. As long as you are on state land or water, you can use marijuana according to that state’s laws. If you are on federal land or water, however, the use of marijuana is criminal.

States have been introducing policy reform in many different ways. Legalization comes under different categories. This includes full prohibition, decriminalization, medical legalization, and adult-use or recreational legalization.


Total prohibition means that any activity with cannabis can result in criminal penalties. This means that the state is mainly in line with federal guidelines for marijuana.

There are only three states that have marijuana in all of its forms completely illegal in the same way as the federal government. These states are Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas.

All the other states allow some access to these products, such as access programs for CBD and THC products for medicinal reasons or legal defense. These states are:

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming



Decriminalization is the next step towards legalization. This means that some criminal penalties are removed and replaced by civil fines. Low-level offenses including possession of small amounts are no longer criminal offenses in this case.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t get in trouble. Even though you will not be arrested for low-level offenses, you will still face penalties. Usually, you will be expected to pay a fine.

That being said, decriminalization can get complicated from state to state.

Some states have only partially decriminalized. This means that the state still considers marijuana offenses criminal, but they have removed the threat of jail time. States listed below with an asterisk (*) are states where decriminalization is only partial.

States that have decriminalized marijuana but have not further legalized it are:

  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina*
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington D.C.

The states that have decriminalized marijuana with further legalization, whether it is medicinal or recreational, are:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota*
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri*
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York*
  • North Dakota*
  • Ohio*
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia
  • U.S. Virgin Islands


Medical Legalization

The next step is medical legalization. This type of policy can come in a wide range. It can also be enacted without decriminalizing marijuana.

Sometimes, it is only enough to be used as a legal defense in a criminal case. In other cases, you can use marijuana for medical purposes freely. The sale of marijuana would then require licensing and testing, but would otherwise be available.

Florida cannabis laws, for example, fall under the medicinal use category. They do not allow for adult recreational use. Even though you can use cannabis for medicinal reasons, it is not decriminalized by the state.

Other states and territories that also allow for medicinal use but not decriminalization are:

  • Arkansas
  • Iowa
  • Florida
  • Louisiana
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Puerto Rico

States and territories that have both decriminalized marijuana use and allowed it for medicinal use are:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia
  • U.S. Virgin Islands


Full Legalization

Cannabis would become fully legal as long as users follow the regulations set by the state. It is no longer criminal to use marijuana for any purpose, and it is taken off the controlled substances list.

In exchange, the state has policies for selling, distributing, testing, and growing marijuana. There aren’t any states that have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use without also legalizing it for medicinal use.

California cannabis laws, for example, allow for marijuana to be used both for medicinal and adult recreational purposes. It is fully decriminalized, meaning that California follows the absolute opposite laws that the federal government sets.

Arizona cannabis laws are similar to California’s laws. Medicinal and adult recreational uses are now legal. However, Arizona has had a history of struggling to decriminalize the use of the drug outside of regulations.

States that have fully legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, as well as decriminalized it, are:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington D.C.


States that have legalized marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use, but their decriminalization has been more complicated, include:

  • Arizona
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • South Dakota
  • Washington
  • Guam


It’s important to do research on your specific state to make sure exactly what activities are legal and what the penalties are for breaking the law.


Are More Laws Coming?

States with the most recent legislation for the legalization of marijuana are New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, and South Dakota. These states had high votes for legalization during the November 2020 election.

In February of 2021, Virginia introduced legislation to legalize the adult recreational use of cannabis and commercial sales. This would begin in 2024. The law, however, won’t be viable until the governor has signed it into law.

Despite being voted for, the legalization of cannabis in South Dakota has been challenged and overturned. This is just one example of the hurdles that proponents of legalization face.

The popularity of these policy changes is very high, and polls show that citizens do not regret voting for legalization. Pew Research shows that two-thirds of voters support recreational use.

Many politicians who once actively fought marijuana legalization now support it. This is good news because not all states allow citizen-initiated ballot initiatives. Even with the wide support for more access to marijuana, it will depend on the legislative branch to introduce these policy changes in these states.

There are even some countries that have federally legalized marijuana use, like Canada. It’s possible that the United States is close to reforms like this. Many politicians voted into office during the 2020 elections have new legalization bills on their minds.

There is hope that continued progress will help rectify concerns about racial injustice when it comes to law enforcement of drug laws as well.

If your state hasn’t yet legalized marijuana, there is a good chance that it will very soon. If not, then you can wait for the federal government to do its work.

Hold Your Breath

While marijuana laws have had a long and arduous history, they are definitely not doomed. We have made so much progress towards making cannabis legally accessible to those who need it medically and to those who enjoy it recreationally.

If you are as excited about this continued legalization as we are, stay informed about cannabis laws by state by reading our blog updates!

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