On Election Day in 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot measures to legalize the recreational use and sale of cannabis, making the states the first in the U.S. to do so.
Nineteen other states, Washington, D.C., and Guam would act to legalize the drug in the next 10 years as public support for legalization rose rapidly – despite marijuana being illegal at the federal level.
Some strains of the cannabis plant – often called marijuana or weed – contain a psychoactive compound called THC that produces a “high” when ingested.
Today, support for marijuana legalization has become mainstream among Democratic politicians, and some Republicans also back the idea. State legislatures are grappling with if and how to legalize the drug, while several marijuana-related bills – including those aiming to decriminalize it on the federal level – have been introduced in Congress. The House passed a marijuana decriminalization bill on April 1, 2022 and months later, several senators – including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which would federally decriminalize weed, as reported by Marijuana Moment. The bill’s future in the Senate is uncertain.
The movement toward relaxing punishment on marijuana use took a new turn on Oct. 7, 2022, when President Joe Biden said he will issue pardons to everyone convicted of the federal crime of simple marijuana possession, while calling for governors to make similar moves for convictions under state laws. The proclamation will apply to about 6,500 Americans, but a senior White House official clarified to reporters that no one is currently behind bars for simple possession of marijuana.
Opponents say marijuana poses a public health and safety risk, and some are morally against legalization. Proponents, however, argue that it is not as dangerous as alcohol and point to evidence that it has therapeutic benefits, such as stress and pain relief.
Advocates also see it as a moneymaker for states and a necessary social justice initiative. Marijuana laws have disproportionately affected people from minority communities, contributing to mass incarceration. States where the drug is legal have sought to retroactively address the consequences of marijuana prohibition, often including provisions allowing for the expungement or vacation of low-level marijuana convictions.
A December 2022 study published by the American Medical Association found that complete legalization reduces marijuana-related arrests even in states that had already decriminalized cannabis, meaning the drug is still illegal but a person would not be prosecuted for possession under a specified amount.
States where legal recreational marijuana has been approved:
- Washington, D.C.
- New Jersey
- New York
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
Retail marijuana hit the shelves in Vermont in October 2022 and in New York in December of that year. The District of Columbia, on the other hand, still doesn’t have a regulated recreational market despite marijuana use being legal there. Meanwhile, Guam officials in November 2021 got closer to launching the territory’s own industry by contracting with Metrc, a provider of cannabis regulatory systems. It was later announced that the government would start accepting licensing applications at the end of August 2022 from “responsible officials” to participate in the island’s recreational cannabis industry, according to the Pacific Daily News.
States have their own processes for licensing dispensaries, but in all states where marijuana is legal, businesses that sell marijuana must have a license from the state to do so.
The sales are regulated and taxed by the states at varying rates. Some states implement an excise tax on the sales, which are taxes on a particular good – in this case, marijuana – levied on the seller, which typically passes it on to the consumer by including it in the product’s price.
Provisions outlining the amount of marijuana an adult can legally possess, if adults can grow their own marijuana plants and how the tax revenue is spent vary from state to state.
Colorado – legalization measure approved November 2012
Adults over the age of 21 in Colorado can possess and give away up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants each, though residences are limited to 12 plants total no matter how many people live there. Using marijuana in public is illegal.
Retail purchases at licensed dispensaries are subject to standard sales tax, plus an additional 10% marijuana sales tax. A 15% excise tax is applied to the wholesale price of retail marijuana – that is, the price that businesses pay cultivators.
Washington – legalization measure approved November 2012
In Washington, adults over 21 can buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused edibles in solid form, 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquid products, and 7 grams of marijuana concentrates. It’s illegal to consume marijuana in public, and recreational users can’t grow the plants at home.
Retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries and there is a 37% excise tax on those sales.
Alaska – legalization measure approved November 2014
Alaskan adults over the age of 21 can possess and give away up to an ounce of marijuana and can grow up to six marijuana plants, though only three of those plants can be mature. It’s illegal to consume the drug in public.
Retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries. The state levies an excise tax on the drug that the cultivator is responsible for paying.
Oregon – legalization measure approved November 2014
Adults in Oregon who are over 21 years old can possess up to an ounce of marijuana if they are in public and up to 8 ounces at home. Adults can also have up to 16 ounces of a marijuana product if it is in solid form, like an edible, or up to 72 ounces of a marijuana product in liquid form. Adults can grow up to four cannabis plants. It’s illegal in Oregon to use marijuana in a public place.
Marijuana retail sales are legal at licensed dispensaries and taxed at 17%, and cities and counties can add up to an additional 3% tax in some cases.
Washington, D.C. – legalization measure approved November 2014
It is legal for adults over 21 to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and to give up to 1 ounce of marijuana to another person. Adults can also grow up to six marijuana plants, three of which can be mature.
Recreational cannabis sales are not legal in D.C., as Congressional Republicans have consistently included language in appropriations bills that prevents the District from establishing an independent regulatory board. Without licensed retailers, D.C.’s adult-use marijuana trade relies on gifting services.
California – legalization measure approved November 2016
It is legal in California for an adult over 21 to possess, purchase or give away up to an ounce of cannabis and as much as 8 grams of concentrated cannabis. Adults can also cultivate up to six live cannabis plants. Smoking or ingesting marijuana is illegal in public places, as is using the drug while in a car.
Retail sales of cannabis at licensed dispensaries are subject to standard state sales tax and an excise tax of 15%. Local governments may also enact additional taxes on cannabis businesses.
Maine – legalization measure approved November 2016
People over 21 in Maine can use and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to six flowering and 12 immature marijuana plants.
A regulated retail market became operational in October 2020, though several owners saw limited product supplies. Maine imposes a 15% excise tax and a 10% sales tax on marijuana.
Massachusetts – legalization measure approved November 2016
Adults over 21 in Massachusetts can have up to an ounce of marijuana on their person and up to 10 ounces at home. Home cultivation is also permitted: Residents can grow up to six plants per person and up to 12 plants in a household of two or more people.
Sales are legal at licensed dispensaries. Sales are subject to standard state sales tax, as well as a state excise tax of 10.75%. Towns and cities can also levy up to a 3% tax on marijuana sales.