While states such as California, Denver, and Washington have long been progressive leaders when it comes to cannabis laws and regulations, much of the country has lagged. Until now. A wave of marijuana legalization legislation is sweeping across the United States, in some places slower than others, but states throughout the country, in places that have never been considered bastions of liberal ideology, are decriminalizing the recreational use and sale of undoubtedly one of the most popular and controversial plants the world over.

Where Weed is Still Illegal

Grow weed

If you focus on the headlines in major cannabis news and investor publications, much of it is focused on the change rather than what is staying the same. The recreational use of cannabis remains officially illegal in 36 of the 50 U.S. states, while some make allowances for medical use while regulating prescription by THC content, and others decriminalize first-time small possession.

Current cannabis laws in Kentucky, for instance, stipulate that if you are caught with less than 8 ounces of cannabis on you, you could be charged with a misdemeanor and given up to 45 days in jail. More than eight ounces could be interpreted by a judge as intent to distribute and constitute a felony with serious jail time behind it. Florida, similarly, continues to apply draconian punishment to marijuana possession. Anything over an ounce constitutes a third-degree felony and potentially up to five years in prison.

The majority of states are what are referred to as “mixed-use” states. These are places where there are varying legal statuses for things like medicinal use, possession, and recreational use. These states are Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

States that have “decriminalized” use and possession (up to certain amounts) no longer arrest, imprison or stick people with a criminal record for first-time possession of small amounts of cannabis. Other states allow the medical prescription of cannabis, but only CBD.

Recreational Cannabis

States where Marijuana legalization is “fully done” include Washington State, Oregon, California, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Vermont. Fully legal, however, does not mean anarchy. In order to distribute cannabis products in fully legal states, businesses must still comply with the requisite licensing laws and regulations. Furthermore, similar laws surrounding public intoxication and intoxication while operating a motor vehicle still apply. California regularly prosecutes and convicts for DUIs involving cannabis.

Employers can still ask candidates to take drug tests and discriminate based on cannabis use and landlords can prohibit tenants from using cannabis on their property where marijuana legalization is still missing. While many states have made it completely legal to purchase cannabis through the authorized channels and safely consume it in the privacy of a person’s home, this does not mean it is legal to use it anywhere you want or to sell it to others.

The States Poised for Legalization

While most states currently exhibit a “mixed” control regime, with a few outliers that still treat marijuana possession as a serious felony deserving of serious jail time, there are a number of cases in the former category that looks poised to pass full legalization sometime in 2021. These include Texas, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. The state legislatures in all of the aforementioned places are currently debating and sitting on reform proposals that appear highly likely to pass. Several other states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, Maryland, Missouri, Florida, and Virginia also have legalization bills pending.

Federal Legalization

Federal regulations

While cannabis use remains illegal at the federal level, various derivative compounds have already been approved by the FDA for prescription use, including Marinol (THC), Syndros (THC), Cesamet (Nabilone), and Epidiolex (cannabidiol). Additionally, for non-prescription use, cannabidiol products that are derived from industrial hemp are federally legal, but different states take varying approaches to their regulation.

For the first time in almost ten years, however, all three branches of government are controlled by the Democrats. One of the many items on the federal agenda is marijuana legalization. House Democrats have already passed the MORE Act, which would act as marijuana legalization at the federal level and new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has stated that passing the legislation is going to be a Senate priority moving forward. If the Democrats can maintain control of all three branches of government after the midterm elections, there is a good chance Federal legalization will pass.


The United States is often viewed as “backward” when it comes to Cannabis laws and regulation by its European progenitors and many of its other G8 colleagues around the world. The idea that a person would be imprisoned for years of their life on marijuana charges seems tyrannical to Scandinavians and Canadians, for instance. State by state, however, the tide is turning. Places that at the beginning of the 21st century would have seemed impervious to laxer drug laws have changed their tune and, at the Federal level, the country as a whole stands a good chance of fully legalizing cannabis very soon.

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