Some 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis or marijuana for recreational use. Also, 16 states, along with Guam, and the Virgin Islands, decriminalized marijuana possession for personal use. Yet, despite the widespread legalization and decriminalization efforts, millions of Americans have criminal records for cannabis possession.
Since 2001, more than 7 million people have been arrested and charged for possessing marijuana. However, prior cannabis convictions are being cleared as legalization gained traction in states nationwide. For example, Illinois’ “Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act” recently legalized marijuana for recreational use. It also cleared the records for those individuals who had been charged with minor offenses.
Records-clearing laws may be relevant for cannabis convictions in 41 states. That’s also relevant in Puerto Rico, as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. Some seven states have record-clearing laws, while many other laws cover cannabis offenses broadly. In addition, progress in cannabis reform is underway across the U.S.
Overview of the Current State of Cannabis Reform
In his statement about marijuana reform, President Biden ordered a review of marijuana’s regulatory status. He also issued a pardon for eligible offenders based on low-level possession charges. With nearly 30 million arrests for marijuana since 1965, the goal is to help an estimated 6,500 individuals to achieve educational and employment opportunities, which they’ve been denied.
Rep. Dave Joyce (R–Ohio) estimates that more than 14 million Americans cannot find jobs or stable housing because of their conviction for marijuana possession. So, the pardon comes across as not going far enough to ensure cannabis reform. For example, the pardon does not apply to individuals convicted for distributing or manufacturing marijuana.
The cannabis reform process is not yet over, though. Most recently, H.R.3617 passed the House on April 1, 2022. It’s the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (or the MORE Act), which removes marijuana from the scheduled substances list and decriminalizes it. So, there would be no penalty for those individuals who possess, distribute, or manufacture it.
History of Marijuana Reform
As we look at cannabis reform and history, it’s important to note that marijuana was legal until 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act first regulated it. Then, 26 states enacted laws to ban marijuana from 1914 to 1925, when alcohol prohibition and the Narcotics Act were at center stage. Of course, it didn’t help that marijuana use was sensationalized and associated with violence.
Fortunately, times have changed, inspiring ongoing debates and efforts to better educate the public about what marijuana is and why cannabis reform is essential. With such an illustrious history of misinformation, cannabis reform has entered popular culture. As a result, it’s more widely accepted than ever before.
Americans have been enjoying legal access to medical marijuana since the first statewide laws were passed in California in 1996. It is now legal to sell medical marijuana in 20 states as well as the District of Columbia. In addition, an ounce or less of marijuana possession has been decriminalized in the District of Columbia, so it’s now considered a civil offense.
As voters push for legalization at the state level, they seem to have found a way around prohibition, which has become increasingly difficult to explain and defend. Despite thousands of patient testimonials to the contrary, marijuana’s classified as a Schedule I drug, the most hazardous classification under federal law, with no medical use.
Statistics on Marijuana Criminalization
The number of Americans who consume marijuana by the end of 2022 is expected to reach 52 million. The number of marijuana-related arrests over nearly ten years is at 8.2 million. Some 88% of those arrests were for simple marijuana possession.
Black people are statistically more likely (up to 10%, depending on the state) to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession than white people. But, of course, if marijuana is legalized through regulation and taxation, racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession were lower.
State-By-State Guide to Marijuana Reform
Marijuana reform is a hot topic, which is why it’s so important to understand what it means and how legalization and decriminalization affect Americans. In this guide, you’ll get a better sense of what’s happening, what the terminology means, and what the current status is.
Legalized vs. decriminalized marijuana
Legalization means that you’re no longer prohibited from using or purchasing marijuana within the scope defined by each state. Decriminalization refers to removing the criminal sanctions around marijuana possession and distribution.
How do penalties vary depending on the amount of marijuana possession?
If you’re arrested with a small amount of marijuana, your penalty could include fines or a misdemeanor charge with up to a year in jail. The penalty for marijuana possession is often a felony if the quantity points to an intent to distribute.
Recreational use vs. medicinal
Where and how cannabis is grown are the main differences between medical and recreational marijuana, but you’ll also find a difference in how and where you can buy it. Here are some ways medical marijuana is different.
- Only dispensaries sell medical cannabis. Physicians must certify and recommend it.
- The law also requires dispensaries to have their products tested by a third-party lab.
- Dispensaries must verify that the marijuana is free of mold, heavy metals, and residual solvents.
- These labs also verify that the reported percentages of THC and CBD are accurate.
Marijuana/Cannabis vs. CBD With THC
Cannabis is part of the Cannabaceae family, with more than 120 phytocannabinoids or compounds. Cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the two most commonly known compounds in cannabis. You may experience a “high” or euphoric feeling from THC. So, you might feel energized, hungry, and sleepy.
On its own, CBD may help to reduce epileptic seizures. Research also indicates that it could help to relieve the side effects from chemotherapy, reduce anxiety, possibly prevent relapse with substance abuse, and reduce PTSD symptoms.
Combining CBD and THC creates an entourage effect and healing effects that could offer even better control for pain, anxiety, fungal infections, and inflammation. The combined effect may help the body purge mutated cells while treating the underlying illness.
What are the criminal penalties for possessing marijuana?
The range of penalties varies depending on whether it’s a first offense. Here’s an overview of what you might expect when you are arrested and charged with possessing marijuana.
- Misdemeanor: If you’re charged with possessing marijuana, they could fine you up to $1,000 for your first marijuana possession offense.
- Felony: A second possession offense carries a felony penalty, which includes a minimum fine of $2,500 and imprisonment for 15 days to two years. The minimum fine for a third offense in a felony conviction increases to $5,000. The maximum sentence increases to three years in jail. Of course, if you’re found guilty of possessing marijuana intending to distribute, you could face more severe penalties.
- Disqualification: Drug possession convictions in the federal or state system result in criminal penalties and ineligibility for programs offering benefits and federal assistance.
- Civil penalties: Federal law allows for a civil penalty of up to $10,000 if the charge involves possessing marijuana for personal use.
Legalized for Recreational Use
Here are the states where marijuana has been approved for recreational use.
- Colorado: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2012.
- Washington: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2012. You can’t grow it at home for recreational use.
- Alaska: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2014.
- Oregon: The state voters approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2014.
- Washington, D.C.: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2014.
- California: The state voters approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2016.
- Maine: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2016.
- Massachusetts: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2016.
- Nevada: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2016. Y
- Michigan: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2018.
- Vermont: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in January 2018.
- Guam: The legislative measure affirmed the approval of marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2019.
- Illinois: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2019.
- New Jersey: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2020.
- Montana: The state approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2020.
- South Dakota: The state voters approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2020, but the state Supreme court struck it down.
- Arizona: The state voters approved limited marijuana legalization via Proposition 207 for adults over 21 in November 2020.
- New York: Governor Andrew Cuomo approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 with the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act in March 2021.
- Virginia: The state legislature approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in April 2021.
- New Mexico: Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed HB2 to legalize marijuana for adults over 21 in March 2021.
- Connecticut: Governor Ned Lamont signed SB1201 to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21 in June 2021.
- Rhode Island: Governor Dan McKee signed the bill that legalized marijuana for adults over 21 in March 2021.
- Maryland: Voters approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2022. Then, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to expunge some convictions for cannabis offenses.
- Missouri: State voters approved marijuana legalization for adults over 21 in November 2022.
Resources for State-by-State Legalization
To get more details on the legal status of marijuana in your state, here are a few quick resources to review.
- Cannabis Legality by State: Here’s a look at where marijuana is decriminalized, legal, and safe.
- ProCon.org: This site offers details on the history of recreational marijuana with a map to highlight the status of marijuana for medical and recreational use.
- Medical Marijuana Qualifying Conditions: This site offers a quick rundown on qualifying conditions and information by state.
Resources for Individuals Impacted by Marijuana Criminalization
Here are resources for individuals who are currently or were formerly incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses.
- Effects of Marijuana Legalization: This report examines how the legalization of cannabis has affected crime and enforcement.
- The Facts on Marijuana Equity and Decriminalization: Akua Amaning discusses why it’s time to decriminalize marijuana as well as the injustices against people of color.
Resources for having drug sentences reduced
Here are resources that should help you understand the process of how to get your drug sentence reduced.
- Drug Sentencing Trends: Here’s an important resource for learning more about drug sentencing trends.
- Federal Sentencing Guidelines: This resource describes the creation and evolution of the federal sentencing guidelines from when it was first released in 1987 until the most recent version.
Resources for criminal record clearing
The partial and complete legalization of marijuana in 21 states across the U.S. may mean that you need to explore ways to clear your record. Here are a few resources that should help.
- Automatic Clearing of Records: The chart outlines states’ eligibility requirements and disqualifications with an automatic record-clearing process.
- How to Justice: You can keep your record private or clear it. This site offers details on how to seal or expunge your record.
Resources for employment with a criminal record related to marijuana offenses
These resources should help you better understand and clear your record if you’ve been convicted of marijuana-related offenses.
- Know Your Rights: This site offers basic information about the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island and how that could affect your ability to clear your record.
- Marijuana Arrests & Punishments: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offers insight into the history of criminalization related to marijuana.
Resources to Learn More about Marijuana Reform
- Legalization and Regulation: Take a closer look at the current laws. Also, examine the efforts to make it legal and regulated for adults.
- Medical Marijuana: Discover where and how you can obtain medical marijuana.
H.R.3617 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Marijuana Opportunity
Jones, J. M. (2021). “Nearly Half of U.S. Adults Have Tried Marijuana.” Gallup, Inc.
“Marijuana Arrests by the Numbers.” American Civil Liberties Union
Morrissey, K., Reiman, A., Tomares, N., & Adams, J. (2022, March). “2022 U.S. Cannabis Report.” New Frontier Data
“Statement from President Biden on Marijuana Reform.” The White House, The United States Government, October 6, 2022