Marijuana possession laws can be confusing. Federal law criminalizes possession of any amount of marijuana. But in some states, possession of small amounts of marijuana carries only a civil penalty or no penalty at all. The conflict between federal and state laws leaves people in a sort of legal limbo. While the issue might be resolved someday, for now, federal consequences are possible even when people comply with state laws on marijuana use and possession.
Read on to learn about federal and state marijuana possession laws and penalties. (Your state law might use a different term or spelling, such as cannabis or marihuana.) You can also jump to any of these sections for information on specific topics:
So, how can marijuana possession be lawful and unlawful at the same time? Most marijuana regulations and enforcement are done at the local and state law level. But the U.S. Congress has the power to enact federal laws for acts that occur on federal property or that affect "interstate commerce," which basically covers any movement of goods or services that could cross state lines. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that any use of marijuana—even local—affects supply and demand in the national marijuana market. And this connection to the national market gives Congress the right to regulate local use within a state. (Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005).)
This means that federal enforcement over local cannabis use is permissible—albeit uncommon. Federal prosecutors typically don't want to devote limited resources to low-level marijuana crimes. And, with each administration, the U.S. Department of Justice generally sets its priorities for federal drug enforcement. High priority often goes to drug trafficking or large-grow operations, whereas low-level cannabis use that complies with state law tends to rank low. But policies can and do change.
It's also important to know that no conflict exists when it comes to possession of marijuana in interstate travel (vehicle and air travel) or on federal property—these acts are not permitted under any law.
A prosecution under federal law for marijuana possession is serious. It can result in incarceration, fines, civil penalties, and denial of federal benefits. Federal drug laws classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug (the highest classification). Simple possession starts as a misdemeanor but quickly jumps to a felony offense.
A first marijuana possession offense—of any measurable amount—carries federal misdemeanor penalties of up to one year's imprisonment and a minimum $1,000 fine.
The penalty increases to a felony for a second possession offense under federal law, punishable by a minimum $2,500 fine and 15 days to two years of imprisonment. A third offense doubles the minimum fine amount to $5,000 and increases the possible time behind bars to a minimum of 90 days and a maximum of three years. If someone possesses marijuana in order to sell it or for other criminal reasons, the penalties become much harsher—including possible mandatory prison time and forfeiture of property or money.
On top of criminal penalties, a federal or state conviction for drug possession makes the individual ineligible for certain federal assistance and benefits programs, such as food assistance and student loans.
Federal law prohibits certain people from buying or possessing a firearm, including any person who is an "unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance." As long as marijuana is illegal under federal law, using marijuana is a barrier to gun ownership. People who have been convicted of a state or federal marijuana-related felony are also prohibited from buying or possessing firearms or ammunition.
Federal law also authorizes a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for possessing an amount of marijuana for personal use.
(21 U.S.C. §§ 812, 844, 844a, 862, 862a (2022).)
Some states follow federal law and prohibit any possession of marijuana. But a growing number of states have enacted laws that split from federal law and allow possession of small amounts of the drug for certain uses. Even in states that have legalized or decriminalized medicinal or adult recreational use of marijuana, possession remains regulated and illegal in certain circumstances.
Depending on your state, the following uses of marijuana may be permissible or decriminalized.
More than 35 states have approved medical marijuana programs. Regulations vary widely between states. To legally purchase and possess medicinal marijuana, most states require patients to register with the state or obtain a specific identification card. Some states allow patients to grow their own marijuana, while others allow access only through regulated dispensaries.
Several states have legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults. But, even in these states, limits to possession and use exist. In "legalized" states, laws still control:
Instead of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, some states have decriminalized it. What's the difference? In "decriminalized" states, the law still prohibits possession of small amounts of marijuana, but punishment is typically a civil fine or low-level criminal infraction that can't result in jail time.
Depending on where you live, your state (or even city) might make all marijuana possession illegal. Even in states that have legalized or decriminalized certain uses, possession of an amount that exceeds the "legal" limit carries penalties, as does possession by prohibited persons or in prohibited places. And similar to alcohol, driving under the influence of (legal or illegal) marijuana remains a crime (and dangerous).
State penalties are often based on the amount of the drug involved, the location of the crime, a person's criminal record, and other aggravating factors.
Civil penalty. In some states, possession of a small amount of marijuana constitutes a civil—not criminal—offense. A civil citation or infraction typically results in an administrative fine. Because the criminal process doesn't come into play, there's no criminal record.
Fine-only offense. Other states make possession of a small amount of marijuana a fine-only offense. Offenders typically receive criminal citations but police officers usually don't arrest them unless aggravating circumstances are involved. (More on aggravating circumstances below.) Even though the sentence doesn't include jail time, a defendant's criminal record might show the conviction. In some states, this record can be sealed or expunged after a certain amount of time has passed.
Criminal penalties. However, if the quantity is large enough to indicate that it's held for sale rather than for personal use, possession almost always constitutes a felony. (Even when the amount is small, other factors can lead to a possession-for-sale charge—for example, also possessing scales or packaging materials.)
Aggravating circumstances involved with marijuana possession typically result in increased penalties. These factors may also disqualify a defendant from taking advantage of any of the jail alternatives described below.
Schools, parks, and treatment centers. Increased penalties can apply if someone who has marijuana possesses it near places where children or vulnerable adults spend time, such as schools, youth centers, parks, public housing, and drug treatment centers.
Repeat drug offenses. Having multiple drug convictions on your record usually results in increased penalties, as well. Instead of misdemeanor charges, a repeat drug offender might be looking at felony penalties and possible prison time.
Other crimes. Possession in connection with other violations—like drug trafficking, large-scale grow operations, violent activities, or illegal firearm possession—often carries severe felony penalties.
Even among those states that continue to criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, many have moved away from harsh penalties for lower-level offenses and offer alternatives to jail. Non-jail options provide offenders a chance to seek treatment and avoid a criminal record. Common examples of alternatives to jail include diversion, deferred sentencing, and probation.
Several states allow diversion (sometimes called "deferred prosecution") for first-time offenders charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana. Diversion provides an alternative to prosecution or conviction if the defendant agrees to, and successfully completes, counseling, treatment, or other requirements. In some instances, diversion allows a first-time offender a chance to avoid a criminal record.
Some states authorize judges to defer (or postpone) entering a sentence and instead place the defendant on probation. As part of this arrangement, a defendant must fulfill certain conditions (which are also set by the judge). Similar to diversion, probation conditions usually include a combination of requirements like completing a certain number of community service hours, participating in drug abuse programs or treatment, or remaining on house arrest during the probation period. Upon the defendant successfully completing probation, the judge typically dismisses the criminal charges.
When a judge imposes the sentence (rather than deferring it), the defendant can still avoid jail time if the judge orders probation in lieu of time behind bars. In this scenario, the jail sentence hangs over the defendant's head during the probation period. A defendant must comply with all the probation conditions and not commit any other crimes to avoid going to jail. Upon successfully completing probation (and thus the sentence), the possibility of jail time goes away. The defendant's record would, though, still show a conviction.
If you're facing state or federal criminal charges for illegal possession of marijuana, contact a criminal defense attorney. While possession charges might seem minor, the consequences tend to be far reaching. Any jail time can result in the loss of a job. And a conviction can result in loss of federal benefits and make it more difficult to obtain employment or housing.
If you already have a conviction, you may want to contact an attorney about the possibility of expunging your federal or state criminal record. The laws on expungement change often, so even if you're not eligible now, keep checking back. For instance, as states have been legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana possession, many have expanded expungement options to allow the sealing of past marijuana convictions for acts that are no longer illegal.
See the following links for state-specific information on marijuana-possession laws and penalties.