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The following is for informational purposes only

Possession of Marijuana

Possession of Marijuana Definition

Marijuana is the most used illegal drug in the US, where illegal means “controlled substance under federal law.” Federal legislation makes possession of marijuana a crime, with possession of even small amounts exposing even first-time offenders to jail sentences. Despite the federal ban, some states treat it as an infraction punishable by fines and “softened” the penalties under certain circumstances (for instance medical use).


Possession of Marijuana: Arrests & Charges

Criminalization with Alternative Punishments

Several states that maintained the criminal classification of marijuana possession in place adopted an Alternative Sentencing Scheme for first-time offenders or perpetrators who possess small amounts. Although they’re still arrested and charged with illegal marijuana possession, judges could subject them to alternative criminal sentences such as fines and no jail or pre-sentencing probation.

Alternative sentencing doesn’t apply to second and subsequent convictions, or if “aggravating factors” are involved, including the following:

  • Giving marijuana to under-aged persons
  • Possessing or growing with the intent to sell
  • Possessing the substance in the presence of a minor or near a school
  • Operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or both

A special case involves some states that incriminate marijuana possession, punish first-timers with just a fine, yet they save the conviction of a defendant in a criminal record. In this situation, at least it’s possible to have the record expunged or sealed.



Federal laws aside,14 states “give a break” to first-time users and those who are found in possession of small amounts by treating recreational use as a minor violation akin to a traffic ticket and punishing it only with fines. First-time violators can even end up with no criminal record in Connecticut, Mississippi, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nebraska, New York, and Ohio. Decriminalization means that:

  • Some states allow people to possess a small quantity of marijuana for personal use and regard it as an infraction
  • Offenders receive citations and could only getarrested if they possess large amounts or for subsequent violations

As of June 2019, the recreational use of Marijuana is legal in the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and 11 states (Alaska, Colorado, California, Michigan, Maine, Nevada, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington).

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana

A total of 33 states, Guam, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands have legalized medical marijuana use. Caregivers and patients who comply will not be prosecuted under state law (in practice, federal authorities don’t even aim at individual medical marijuana users).

Since federal laws consider distribution and prescription of marijuana an offense, medical marijuana dispensaries and growers or are often called "caregivers," while "prescriptions" are frequently called "referrals" or "recommendations."


Marijuana Laws by State

The Toughest Marijuana Laws

By far, Florida followed by Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Virginia and Wisconsin have the strictest penalties for marijuana possession. Being caught with 1 ounce of this substance in Florida could send the perpetrator in prison for 5 years in addition to facing a $6,000 fine. The second most severe state is Arizona where the possession or distribution of any amount could be charged as a felony, carrying sentences of more than 1 year of jail time and a minimum fine of $750 that could go up to $150,000.

Louisiana, the state with the fifth-highest arrest rate for this drug, adopted extremely harsh punishments as well. They vary from 6 months in jail and fines of $500 for first-timers to at least 5 years behind bars and fines of up to $5000 for repeat offenders(qualified as felony offenses). By default, selling or growing are felonies punishable with 5 to 30 years of incarceration, along with a maximum fine of $100,000. If the crime involves huge quantities (2000 to 10,000 pounds), this means 40 years in prison and fines that could exceed $1 million.

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