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.

California medical marijuana
November, 1996
California become the first place in the world to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana when voters enacted Proposition 215 at the ballot.
Alaska Marijuana
November, 1998

Medical marijuana became legal in Alaska when voters approved Alaska Measure 8 at the ballot.

Washington Marijuana
November, 1998

Washington state voters enacted Washington Initiative 692 at the ballot, allowing marijuana to be used for debilitating medical conditions.

Oregon Marijuana
November, 1998

Oregon voted to remove criminal penalties for the medicinal use of marijuana by enacting Ballot Measure 67.

Maine Marijuana
November, 1999

Maine voters approved Maine Medical Marijuana for Specific Illnesses, known as Question 2, at the ballot by a wide margin.

Hawaii Marijuana
September, 2000

Hawaii became the first state to enact medical marijuana laws by legislation, instead of ballot initiative, when the governor signed Act 228 into law.

Nevada Marijuana
November, 2000

Medical cannabis became legal in Nevada when voters approved the Nevada Medical Marijuana Act, or Question 9, at the ballot. The law allows possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana, and patients are also allowed to cultivate up to 12 mature plants at home.

Colorado recreational marijuana
November, 2000

Colorado voters approved the Colorado Medical Use of Marijuana Act, or Initiative 20, at the ballot in 2000.

Vermont Marijuana
May, 2004

Vermont enacted medical marijuana by state legislation.

Montana Marijuana
November, 2004

Voters in Montana approved the Montana Medical Marijuana Allowance (I-148), allowing the cultivation and possession of marijuana for those with debilitating medical conditions.

New Mexico Marijuana
April, 2007

Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill into law establishing a medical marijuana program in the state.

Rhode Island Marijuana
June, 2007

The Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act allowed licensed patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, plus 12 plants and seedlings.

Michigan Marijuana
November, 2008

Voters in Michigan approved The Michigan Medical Marijuana Initiative – or Proposal 1 – at the ballot on 2008.

New Jersey Marijuana
January, 2010

The New Jersey legislature approved a measure allowing patients with chronic illness to use medical marijuana.

Arizona Marijuana
November, 2010

Medical marijuana was legalized in Arizona when a slim majority of voters approved Proposition 203 at the ballot.

Delaware Marijuana
May, 2011

The Delaware state legislature approved Senate Bill 17, the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act, in 2011.

Connecticut Marijuana
May, 2012

Connecticut became the 17th U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana when then Governor Dannel Malloy signed new legislation into law.

Massachusetts marijuana
November, 2012

Medical marijuana has been permitted in Massachusetts since voters approved the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative – or Question 3 – at the ballot.

Washington Marijuana
November, 2012

Adults in Washington are allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Colorado recreational marijuana
November, 2012

It is legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in Colorado.

Maryland Marijuana
May, 2013

Medical marijuana became legal in Maryland when then Governor Martin O’Malley signed House Bill 881 into law.

New Hampshire Marijuana
July, 2013

New Hampshire became the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana when then Governor Maggie Hassan signed a bill into law.

Illinois Marijuana
August, 2013

Illinois legalized medical marijuana when then Governor Pat Quinn signed into law the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act.

Minnesota Marijuana
May, 2014

After trial legislation in 2003 that reduced penalties for those using marijuana for medical necessity, Minnesota passed a comprehensive medical marijuana law.

New York Marijuana
July, 2014

Medical marijuana was legalized in New York when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed new legislation into law.

Alaska Marijuana
November, 2014

Marijuana was made legal for recreational use by voters in Alaska in 2014, and can be purchased from licensed retail stores.

DC Marijuana
November, 2014

The legal status of marijuana falls into an unsettled legal gray area in the nation’s capital. Marijuana use, possession and cultivation are legal, but sale is not.

Oregon Marijuana
October, 2015

It is legal to purchase and use marijuana for recreational use in Oregon.

Pennsylvania marijuana
April, 2016

Medical marijuana became legal in Pennsylvania when the state legislature passed the Medical Marijuana Act.

Ohio Marijuana
June, 2016

Ohio legalized marijuana use for a long list of medical conditions when Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 523 into law.

North Dakota
August, 2016

Voters in North Dakota approved North Dakota Measure 5 at the ballot, legalizing medical marijuana in the state.

Arkansas Marijuana
November, 2016

Arkansas voters legalized medical marijuana when they approved the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment – or Issue 6 – at the ballot.

Florida Marijuana
November, 2016

Voters in Florida approved the Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization – or Amendment 2 – at the ballot.

Nevada Marijuana
November, 2016

Nevada’s marijuana legalization measure was approved by 55 percent of voters in 2016. Question 2 made it legal for adults to legally possess an ounce of marijuana.

Maine Marijuana
November, 2016

Maine legalized marijuana at the ballot in 2016. The new law allows adults aged 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for recreation.

Massachusetts marijuana
November, 2016

Marijuana became legal in Massachusetts when 54 percent of voters approved Question 4 at the ballot.

California medical marijuana
November, 2016

With MMJ legal in the state since 1996, California has one of the strongest marijuana cultures in the world. The state legalized recreational use of the drug, through Proposition 64 (also known as the AUMA), at the ballot in 2016.

West Virginia Marijuana
April, 2017

West Virginia became the 29th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for medical purposes when Gov. Jim Justice signed a Senate Bill 386 into law.

Vermont Marijuana
January, 2018

Vermont’s marijuana laws allow adults aged 21 and older to legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Per Vermont S. 54, localities in Vermont must opt-in to participate in the state’s recreational marijuana programs.

Utah Marijuana
March, 2018

Utah voters legalized the medicinal use of marijuana at the ballot in 2018. Patients with any of a long list of conditions are eligible.

Oklahoma Marijuana
June, 2018

Marijuana was legalized for medical use in Oklahoma when voters approved State Question 788 at the ballot.

Michigan Marijuana
November, 2018

Michigan’s adult use law permits marijuana possession, and retail sales at licensed dispensaries. Home cultivation and cannabis concentrates are also allowed.

Missouri Marijuana
November, 2018

Missouri voters legalized the medicinal use of marijuana in November 2018 for treatment of a long list of medical conditions.

Illinois Marijuana
May, 2019

Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, thus legalizing recreational marijuana use by those 21 years and older. Illinois is the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana through a state legislature, rather than a ballot initiative.

New Jersey Marijuana
November, 2020

On January 1, 2021, recreational adult-use of marijuana became legal under Public Question 1 approved by voters on Election Day 2020.

Montana Marijuana
November, 2020

As of January 1, 2021, adults may possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and 8 grams of concentrates.

Arizona Marijuana
December, 2020

Arizona voters legalized recreational adult-use of marijuana on Election Day 2020 with the passing of the Smart and Safe Arizona Act.

March, 2021

South Dakota approved recreational and medical marijuana legalization simultaneously when voters approved both measures at the 2020 ballot. Legalization will take effect on July 1, 2021, permitting adults 21 and older to possess 1 ounce of cannabis (not to exceed 8 grams of concentrates) and grow three plants.

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