In the United States, the legalization of marijuana has always been a hotly debated topic. For many years, marijuana has been illegal – both for medicinal and recreational use. However, in recent years, more states are legalizing marijuana, even for recreational use. Under federal law, marijuana is still illegal. However, states have changed their laws to make the cultivation and use of marijuana legal. In some states, marijuana has been decriminalized, meaning that criminal penalties for the possession and usage of marijuana have been reduced or eliminated. The first states to legalize the use of recreational marijuana were Colorado and Washington in 2012. Since then, several other states have followed suit.
In 2020, four states voted to legalize recreational marijuana: New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota in the election. In 2021, Virginia, New Mexico, and Connecticut legalized recreational marijuana, and Rhode Island and Missouri followed in 2022. In 2023, Delaware also legalized recreational marijuana. As of May 2023, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana. D.C. only allows limited adult possession or growing only, not production or sales.
Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 with the passage of Amendment 64. Colorado first legalized medical marijuana in 2000, bypassing Ballot Amendment 20. In September 2013, the Colorado Department of Revenue adopted regulations for recreational marijuana establishments. Colorado Amendment 64 was implemented in 2014 with the commercial sale of marijuana to the general public beginning on January 1, 2014. In its first year, Colorado’s legal marijuana market reached total sales of $700 million. Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a law in 2019 that would allow licensed businesses to have designated marijuana use areas. Currently, marijuana use is only permitted in private residences.
Washington state was the second state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing the use of cannabis for adults over the age of 21 and allowed the Washington State Liquor Control Board to regulate and tax cannabis production and sales and set new limits on blood THC levels for DUI offenses. Initiative 502 made possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults legal under state law on December 6, 2012; however, gifting, sale, or cultivation remained illegal. After the initiative went into effect, the Washington State Liquor control began establishing regulations for the recreational cannabis industry with a deadline of December 1, 2013.
On July 8, 2014, the first recreational marijuana stores opened to the public. Initiative 502 states that adults 21 and over can purchase up to one ounce of usable marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused edibles in solid form, 72 ounces in liquid form, and seven grams of marijuana concentrates. A 2016 survey found that the perceived harm associated with marijuana use has declined among adolescents since legalization.
Alaska became the second state in the U.S. to decriminalize cannabis on May 6, 1975. In 1982, the Alaska legislature decriminalized possession of up to four ounces of cannabis in the home or one ounce outside the home. Medical marijuana was legalized in 1998, allowing approved patients to possess up to an ounce of cannabis or grow up to six plants. In an attempt to legalize recreational marijuana, Measure 5 in 2000 and Measure 2 in 2004 both failed to get enough votes. In 2006, cannabis was recriminalized, making possession under one ounce a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail; possession of one to four ounces a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail; and possession of over four ounces a felony. In 2015, Measure 2 passed to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, allowing adults to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and cultivate six plants. Alaska became the third state to legalize recreational marijuana. On October 29, 2016, the first state-regulated sale of cannabis in dispensaries occurred.
California decriminalized cannabis in 1975 with the Moscone Act, which classifies possession of small amounts of cannabis as a civil offense instead of a criminal offense. In 1996, Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act of 1996) passed, legalizing the use of medical marijuana by patients with a physician’s approval. Senate Bill 420 established an identification card system for medical cannabis patients and allowed the formation of non-profit collectives to provide cannabis to patients. In 2010, Proposition 19 was rejected by California voters to legalize the use, possession, and cultivation of cannabis. In 2016, Proposition 64 passed by a vote of 57% to 43%, legalizing recreational marijuana in both a dry and concentrated form. Legal sales of recreational marijuana began on January 1, 2018.
In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation that increased the penalty for selling two ounces or more or possessing four ounces or more of cannabis and other substances to a minimum of 15 years to life in prison and a maximum of 25 years to life in prison. In 1977, New York partially decriminalized marijuana possession of 25 grams or less to an infection with a $100 fine. In 2014, New York City mayor Bill De Blasio directed NYPD to stop arrests for small possession, even in cases where the 1977 law would allow arrest, and issue tickets instead.
In July 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation permitting the use of medical marijuana. In 2018, Governor Cuomo urged the New York State Legislature to fund a study on the effects of recreational marijuana use. Upon completing this study, the Department of Health recommended the legalization of marijuana in New York, followed by an amended Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act bill. Finally, in 2021, recreational marijuana was legalized within the state.
In 2008, the Michigan Compassionate Care Initiative was passed by voters to allow patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for the treatment of certain medical conditions with physician approval. This did not explicitly allow dispensaries to operate, and in 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court ruling stated this. In September 2016, Governor Rick Snyder signed several bills that allowed the operation and regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries, set a taxation rate of 3% on medical marijuana, and allowed the use of medical marijuana in non-smokable forms such as edibles or topical products. Before statewide legalization, several cities decriminalized cannabis or made the enforcement of cannabis laws their lowest priority. These cities include Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Flint.
In November 2018, Michigan voters passed Proposal 1, making Michigan the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana. The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act allows adults 21 and over to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in public, up to 10 ounces at home, and to cultivate up to 12 plants at home. The act also allows for the state-licensed cultivation and distribution of marijuana, with sales subject to a 10% excise tax and the state’s 6% sales tax. The first dispensaries opened on December 1, 2019.
In 2000, Governor Ben Cayetano signed Act 228 into law, which allowed medical marijuana cardholders to grow their own cannabis in their homes; however, it did not establish a legal market or any dispensaries. The Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program of Hawaii was created in 2015 to require those wishing to use medical marijuana to receive certification and approval from a licensed physician that the patient’s medical condition would benefit from the use of marijuana. Patients are then required to register online and receive their 329 Registration Card before using medical marijuana legally.
In 2016, Senate Bill 321 established a dispensary system, allowing eight dispensaries to open in Hawaii. The first medical marijuana dispensary sale was made in August 2017. In February 2017, the Hawaii House of Representatives Agricultural Committee passed legislation to remove criminal or civil sanctions on industrial hemp. Beginning on January 11, 2020, Hawaii decriminalized marijuana possession of three grams or less, punishable by a $130 fine. Previously, laws were much stricter, even for small amounts of marijuana.
In 2014, Senate Bill 491 was enacted to reduce penalties for cannabis offenses, including possession, sale, and cultivation of cannabis. It went into effect in January 2017. In July 2014, Governor Jay Nixon signed into law the Missouri Medical Marijuana Bill. This bill legalized the use of low-THC (no higher than 0.3% THC) CBD oil to treat epilepsy. In November 2018, Missouri voters passed Amendment 2 to legalize medical marijuana. This allowed patients with any “chronic, debilitating, or other medical condition” as determined by a physician to be recommended cannabis as a treatment. The amendment also set a 4% tax rate on medical marijuana sales and allows qualified patients to grow up to six cannabis plants. Missouri went on to legalize recreational marijuana in 2022.
In January 2010, Governor Jon Corzine signed the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, allowing the use of medical marijuana for persons with specific conditions such as HIV/AIDS, seizure disorders, cancer, glaucoma, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease, and any terminal illness, among other conditions. In 2017, additional conditions were added to the list, such as migraines, Tourette syndrome, and chronic pain.
In May 2017, state Senator Nicholas Scutari introduced legislation to legalize marijuana in New Jersey; however, it was strongly opposed by Governor Christie. After Christie left office, Scutari introduced the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization, which was passed in November 2018. The legislation also expanded access to medical marijuana and expanded the state’s expungement process. Although the legislation passed, its progress was stagnant as lawmakers disagreed on details of legalization. During December 2018 and January 2019, negotiations took place, focusing on the tax rate and regulatory oversight of recreational marijuana; however, it collapsed in March of 2019. On December 16, 2019, a referendum was passed to be on the 2020 ballot. In the November 2020 elections, New Jersey voters voted to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over.
In the November 2020 elections, Arizona voted to legalize recreational cannabis for all adults over 21. Almost 60% of Arizona voters voted yes on their ballots. Recreational marijuana sales began in Arizona in January 2021. This was the fastest transition from voter approval to sales implementation for recreational marijuana in any state. The Arizona Department of Health Services began accepting applications in early January for recreational business licenses. In the first round, ADHS received 79 applications and approved 73 to start selling adult-use cannabis.
Montana voters approved recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over in the November 2020 elections. As of January 1, 2021, Montana residents are officially allowed to use marijuana. In January 2022, Montana will open up applications for dispensaries.
On February 5, 2021, both of the Virginia General Assembly's chambers passed legislation that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. The two chambers' bills need to be adjusted and worked out before they can be sent to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Both measures would legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for those 21 and over. Starting July 1, 2021, both bills would start expunging some previous misdemeanor marijuana-related offenses. Recreational sales would be expected to start in 2024. Both bills state that the largest portion of marijuana tax revenue would be used to fund pre-K for at-risk children.
In April 2021, New Mexico's Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a marijuana legalization bill into law. New Mexico became the 17th state to legalize weed for adult use. The state had legal medical marijuana since 2007.
Connecticut legalized recreational weed in June 2021 after years of failed attempts. The bill legalized the use and cultivation of recreational cannabis and expunge thousands of past convictions for possession. As of July 2021, it is legal to possess or use up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis. Retail sales are expected in late 2022.
On May 25, 2022, Governor Daniel McKee signed the Rhode Island Cannabis Act into law, legalizing and safely regulating recreational cannabis. Retail sales may begin as early as December 1.
Delaware is the most recent state to legalize recreational marijuana up to 1 oz. in 2023.