Where Is Cannabis Legal In The United States?

With the successful legalization efforts over the last few years, and the explosion of activity in the cannabis industry, it can often be difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

This is especially true in the US, where the action happens on a state-by-state basis.  In 2019 alone, we’ve seen the full legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana in Illinois, and decriminalization in New Mexico, Hawaii, and North Dakota (as well a major move by New York to further decriminalize).

In the interest of keeping up to date with what’s happening in the world of cannabis, the following is a comprehensive guide to its legal status in the US.  The guide (current as of October 2019) breaks down which states have fully legalized, which states offer medical cannabis, and which states have decriminalized the plant.

Which States Have Medical Cannabis?

We’ll start with the current status of medical marijuana in America.  

Unlike recreational cannabis, medical programs have been in place for a lot longer, are legal in far more jurisdictions, and represent a more established industry.  California was the first state to take the plunge back in 1996, with a number of others following shortly after. Oklahoma and Missouri have been the most recent in 2018. 

As it stands right now, 33 states, along with Washington, DC, have legalized for medical use. 

The 22 states which permit medical cannabis (but not recreational) include the following:

  • Montana
  • Utah
  • Arizona
  • Hawaii
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Florida
  • Ohio
  • West Virginia
  • Pennsylvania
  • New York
  • Connecticut
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • New Jersey
  • Delaware
  • Maryland

It’s important to note that while the majority of America does have access to medical marijuana, legal states do differ in the specifics of their legislation – particularly when it comes to possession.  

Certain jurisdictions, such as California, have fairly liberal possession allowances, while others have comparatively stringent restrictions.

Medical Marijuana in the USA
Some states offering medical marijuana programs can impose a number of restrictions

THC Restrictions

There are 14 states not on our list which technically allow for some medical marijuana, but which impose strict caps on the amount of THC which can be present in the product (often in the form of CBD extract and under limited situations).

These states include:

  • Wyoming
  • Texas
  • Kansas
  • Wisconsin
  • Iowa
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Virginia
  • Tennessee
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Alabama
  • Mississippi

That leaves Idaho, South Dakota and Nebraska.  While none of these states currently have anything in place, a number of initiatives are underway in all three jurisdictions.

Which States Have Recreational Cannabis?

As it stands right now, there are a comparatively small number of states which have legalized adult-use recreational cannabis compared to those with only medical marijuana programs.

The upside, however, is that the legalization of recreational pot is spreading rapidly, with more and more jurisdictions committing to a policy of full legalization.

As of October 2019, the following 11 states  (as well as the District of Columbia) allow for both recreational and medical marijuana:

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Nevada
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Vermont
  • Massachusetts
  • Maine
  • Alaska

One important fact to note is that while it may be legal to light up in all these places, only eight of the states on our list have actually given the green light for sales – although they will soon.  Illinois, Vermont and Michigan are all expected to implement retail sales in 2020 and 2021.

A Timeline of Recreational Cannabis In The US

Full legalization for recreational use is a far more recent phenomenon than for medical marijuana, and as such, its timeline is much shorter and easier to map.

In a historic and controversial decision, Colorado and Washington became the first two US states to approve recreational pot in 2012.  The move not only set in motion the creation of a new industry, but it also paved the way for other states to follow in their footsteps.

Alaska and Oregon both followed Colorado and Washington’s lead in 2014 (both through the use of a ballot measure), and 2016 saw a massive wave of legalization, with California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts doing the same.  

In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize through its state legislature, with Michigan following through on a ballot initiative shortly after.  

The most recent newcomer to the legalization party has been Illinois, which passed state legislation in May of this year (the legislation will take effect on January 1st, 2020).

Recreational Cannabis in the USA
Decriminalization and legalization of recreational cannabis use is gaining traction in the US

Which States Have Decriminalized Cannabis?

While there are only 11 states which have fully legalized, there are a number which have opted to keep recreational cannabis illegal (for now), but have laws which decriminalize its use.  

These states typically have a situation in which prohibition is still in place, but where possession of small amounts does not carry criminal charges (each state has varying definitions of “small amounts”).  The argument used to justify this arrangement is that it allows authorities to continue going after black market dealers without slapping users with criminal records.

The following states have decriminalized cannabis in some form:

  • Nebraska
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • Missouri
  • Maryland
  • New York
  • Connecticut
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio
  • North Dakota
  • Minnesota
  • New Mexico
  • Delaware
  • Rhode Island
  • Hawaii

The Current Legal Status Of Cannabis In The US

All of the aforementioned information is complicated by the fact that, at the federal level, cannabis remains very much illegal – under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, and is considered to be illegal for “any use”.

Unlike Canada, which has fully approved its use across the country at both the federal and provincial level, this discrepancy between federal and state law in America is the source of a great deal of confusion.

It’s also a major headache for cannabis companies in legal states.  Prior to the passage of the SAFE Banking Act on September 25, 2019, many of these companies had to conduct the majority of their business essentially in cash, since banks were reluctant to handle any entity that technically violates federal law (even if they’re doing business in a legal state).

To get a sense for just how cumbersome this arrangement is, consider that many of these businesses have to pay for armed security in order to physically transport their money to pay bills or taxes.  The well-known fact that they carry tens of thousands of dollars in cash on their premises also makes them a target for armed robberies, potentially putting the lives of their employees at risk.

Future Predictions

With Illinois being the most recent state to fully legalize this year, a number of observers have speculated as to which will join the club in the near future.  Two obvious picks would be New York and New Jersey, given that both states came close to passing legislation this year.

But the big issue on the minds of the masses is the rescheduling of cannabis at the federal level.  At the end of the day, the trend of individual states going legal shows no signs of letting up, but the biggest win that cannabis advocates and the industry could hope for is full federal legalization.

And while there are far too many variables to make a solid prediction, with next years federal election campaigns already picking up steam, many are hoping that 2020 is the year we finally see an end to prohibition in America.