When Is Possession of Marijuana a Crime?

The legalization of marijuana in some states–and the ways different laws come into play–make it confusing for some people to understand when a crime is being committed. Here are some of the things you need to know about the law of possessing marijuana.

Marijuana–or cannabis–is the third most commonly used addictive drug in the United States, coming after alcohol and tobacco. Around 12 million adults use marijuana each year, which doesn’t account for school students also known to use the drug.

People take marijuana for the “high” they get. It changes the way they perceive things, it alters mood, and it affects the way they think. This feeling can be addictive, and for people with medical problems, it can give them some relief. However, too much marijuana can quickly change what some people perceive as positive effects into negative ones. This includes difficulty with doing everyday tasks, delusions, hallucinations, and psychosis.

People have their reasons for possessing marijuana. However, in the current climate where there is confusion over what constitutes a crime when it comes to marijuana, people are concerned with knowing exactly what their rights are. Here are some of the key aspects of what makes marijuana possession a crime or not.

Federal Law and State Law

In recent years, there has been a lot of media attention about the legalization of marijuana in some states. Although medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, it was only in 2012 that the states of Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use. Since then, other states have also allowed marijuana for recreational use.

What is not covered so widely in the media is that the possession of marijuana is still a federal crime. Federal laws can supersede state laws, which means that possession of marijuana is a crime that can even result in first time offenders having to serve jail time. However, it is uncommon for this to happen, as federal law enforcement typically does not have the resources to pursue lower level possession crimes relating to marijuana. 

This is why it’s important to know the state laws in your particular state. With so much public discussion about the legalization of marijuana, it can be easy to assume that every state in the United States will be lenient about marijuana possession. This is not the case. It is true that some states have either decriminalized or legalized marijuana for either medical and/or recreational use, but there are still many states in which any possession is illegal. It is important to speak to a lawyer if you could be prosecuted under either a federal or state law. Read more here.

To summarize, this means that if you are in a state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use and you are found carrying a small amount of the drug with you for personal use, you likely will not be prosecuted. However, if you are arrested for marijuana possession in a state where this is still illegal, you are likely to be punished for this crime.

Possible Penalties

If you fit the criteria for being prosecuted under federal law, your first offence will likely be considered a misdemeanor. However, this still carries possible jail time of up to one year, and a fine of up to $1,000. If this is your second possession offense, it can be treated as a felony offense instead. In this instance, jail time will be at least 15 days, and could be up to two years. The fine can be up to $2,500.

Each additional time someone commits a marijuana possession offence, the jail time becomes longer and the fines higher. Anyone found in possession of marijuana in order to sell it will be subject to harsher penalties. Some people don’t realize that even a federal offense can also carry civil penalties, and in the case of marijuana possession, this could be in the form of an additional fine of up to $10,000.

For those who face state penalties instead of federal ones, the exact penalties depend on the status of marijuana laws in that particular state. In states where medical marijuana is allowed, regulations usually state that patients must be registered and have an identification card for this purpose. They may have to buy the marijuana from regulated suppliers. Possession of marijuana that strays from the state’s medical marijuana laws can incur criminal charges.

In states where marijuana is legalized for recreational use, the rules are still quite specific. People can have no more than a certain amount of marijuana on them, and there are restrictions on where it can be smoked. Again, not following state laws and rules can mean that criminal charges are possible if these rules are not followed.