Marijuana legalization is sweeping the country. As of Election Day 2020, adult recreational use is legal in 15 states. Though it’s still illegal on a federal level, that soon may change if Democrats keep their promise. 

So what exactly is marijuana legalization? How does it differ from other avenues of cannabis reform? How do states approach the cannabis issue? And what about the feds?

Terminology is important, although it isn’t always used correctly. The distinctions between the different levels of marijuana reform are critical, as activities that pass legal scrutiny in one place may lead to fines or even jail time in another.

The legalization of marijuana means that, as long as you abide by the state-specific cannabis laws, you will not be arrested, fined, or convicted for the use, possession, and cultivation of marijuana. Legalization also allows for a retail market where people can purchase cannabis. Each state has different laws regarding the specifics of marijuana legalization, so make sure to stay in the know.

Where is marijuana legal?

The legality of marijuana differs substantially from state to state. Some allow adult recreational use, others allow the use of medical marijuana by state-registered patients, and some only allow non-intoxicating CBD use.

The map below shows the legal status of marijuana by state.



State Legal Status Recreational Medical Marijuana Statewide Decriminalization
Alabama Illegal No No No
Alaska Recreational Yes  Yes  Yes 
Arizona Recreational Yes  Yes  N/A 
Arkansas Medical No  Yes  No 
California Recreational Yes Yes  Yes 
Colorado Recreational Yes  Yes  Yes 
Connecticut Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Delaware Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Florida Medical No  Yes  No
Georgia Illegal No  No No 
Hawaii Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Idaho Illegal No  No No 
Illinois Recreational Yes  Yes  Yes
Indiana Illegal No  No No 
Iowa Medical No  Yes  No 
Kansas Illegal No  No No 
Kentucky Illegal No  No  No 
Louisiana Medical No  Yes  No 
Maine Recreational Yes Yes  Yes 
Maryland Medical No  Yes  Yes
Massachusetts Recreational Yes Yes  Yes
Michigan Recreational Yes Yes  N/A 
Minnesota Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Mississippi Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Missouri Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Montana Recreational Yes Yes  N/A
Nebraska Illegal No  No Yes 
Nevada Recreational Yes  Yes  Yes 
New Hampshire Medical No  Yes  Yes 
New Jersey Recreational Yes  Yes  N/A 
New Mexico Medical No  Yes  Yes 
New York Recreational No  Yes  Yes 
North Carolina Illegal No  No Yes 
North Dakota Medical No  Yes  Yes
Ohio Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Oklahoma Medical No  Yes  No 
Oregon Recreational Yes Yes  Yes 
Pennsylvania Medical No  Yes  No 
Rhode Island Medical No  Yes  Yes
South Carolina Illegal No  No No 
South Dakota Recreational Yes  Yes  N/A 
Tennessee Illegal No  No  No 
Texas Illegal No  No  No 
Utah Medical No  Yes  No 
Vermont Recreational Yes  Yes  Yes
Virginia Medical No  Yes  Yes 
Washington Recreational Yes  Yes  N/A 
Washington, DC Recreational Yes  Yes  Yes 
West Virginia Medical No  Yes  No
Wisconsin Illegal No  No No 
Wyoming Illegal No  No  No 

Timeline of U.S. cannabis legalization

Adults 21 and older can enjoy recreational use of marijuana on private property in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington State, and Washington, D.C.  Some form of medical marijuana is available in nearly all other U.S. states.

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How you can legally obtain marijuana for recreational use

How to get your hands on marijuana for recreational use depends on your location.

The most popular method of obtaining recreational marijuana is to purchase it from a dispensary. Adults over 21 may legally purchase marijuana for recreation at retail stores often called dispensaries. However, some states that have legalized adult-use do not have dispensary programs in place at this time.

In most states with legal cannabis, residents 21 and older are permitted to cultivate their own cannabis at home. Growers must meet certain conditions, such as limiting the number of plants and keeping plants secured from public view. It is also legal to gift small amounts of cannabis, provided nothing else of value changes hands.

Marijuana cultivation laws

It is legal for adults to grow marijuana plants for recreational use in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Unique state laws vary by the number of plants permitted in total, the number of flowering plants permitted at one time, and if a dispensary is in proximity.

For detailed information per state, view our article on marijuana cultivation laws by state.

Which states will be next to legalize?

Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Rhode Island are all on track to legalize marijuana in 2021. Talk of federal legalization has made recent headlines, with the Democrat party promising to make headway in the coming year. The MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act) was passed by the House in December 2020.

Legalization vs. decriminalization

The terms “legalization” and “decriminalization” are often used interchangeably. Both remove criminal penalties, but there are differences between the two.

True legalization means that a state allows for the operation of a marijuana industry and retail market where adults can buy, possess, and use the drug within constraints of local law. States that have only decriminalized marijuana don’t allow retail markets or home cultivation, but will not prosecute for simple possession, and often replace criminal penalties with civil fines for low-level offenses.

U.S. public support for marijuana legalization

Public support for marijuana legalization has steadily increased in the United States over the past five decades. We’ve now reached a point where more than two-thirds of Americans support the complete legalization and acceptance of cannabis.

Support for Marijuana Legalization USA

Source: Gallup