What Paralegals Need to Know about the Changing Marijuana Laws

Marijuana Laws

What Paralegals Need to Know about the Changing Marijuana Laws

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (“NORML”), more than 14 million Americans use marijuana regularly. With the increasing pressure from voters, more and more states are decriminalizing marijuana, making it legal for medicinal use, and two have made it outright legal to use recreationally. So, it might be time for all paralegals to brush up on the pot laws and how they are changing in your state and across the country.

Possession of Marijuana is against Federal Law

Federal law classifies controlled substances in 5 schedules – Schedule I, Schedule II, Schedule III, Schedule IV, and Schedule V. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance. In order to meet the criteria of a Schedule I substance, a drug must have a high potential for abuse and have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, there must also be a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. 21 U.S.C. § 844 makes the simple possession of a Schedule I controlled substance a misdemeanor. If prior convictions under the statute exist, the possession of a Schedule I controlled substance becomes a felony. The law also makes growing marijuana or possessing it with the intent to distribute it a crime for which one can be sentenced to anywhere from 1 year to life, depending on the weight or number of plants possessed.  [See the Controlled Substances Act].

The Federal Government May or May Not Enforce Marijuana Laws

Because federal law makes it a crime to possess, grow, or distribute marijuana, state laws allowing for the possession or distribution of marijuana may not protect those engaging in such activities from arrest or prosecution. The Department of Justice has recently said in a guidance memo to federal prosecutors nationwide that it would not pursue activities to block state laws legalizing marijuana, but would require that the states put into place regulations aimed at “preventing marijuana sales to minors, illegal cartel and gang activity, interstate trafficking of marijuana, and violence and accidents involving the drug.”  Under the new guidance, large scale cultivators and dispensaries are not to be targeted for criminal prosecutions. The guidance, however, left it up to the prosecutors to decide if state laws and regulations were adequate, and if not, gave them the authority to bring individual criminal prosecutions under existing federal law. [See the New York Times U.S. Won’t Sue to Reverse States’ Legalization of Marijuana].

Marijuana is Legal, but Regulated, in Two States: Washington and Colorado

Residents of Washington and Colorado may grow, possess, distribute, or use marijuana for recreational purposes. Both states have new marijuana laws which govern dispensing and growing marijuana, and have repealed or revised any law making possession or use a crime. The new state laws make it illegal, for example to provide marijuana to minors, openly use marijuana in public places, or possess more than the allowed amount of marijuana. So, just as with alcohol, marijuana may be legal, but its production, distribution, and sale is highly regulated and controlled.

Marijuana is Legal for Medicinal Purposes in 20 States and D.C.

20 states and Washington D.C. have now passed medical marijuana laws making it legal for patients with certain medical conditions to use marijuana, and in many cases, for others to grow, sell, and distribute marijuana to the patients. The laws vary from state to state, but most require a fee paid to the state in order to become a licensed patient, or user. Some states allow patients to grow their own marijuana; others do not, and most have rules about who can grow it and how much they can grow.

States allowing the use of medical marijuana include:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • CD
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

A chart summarizing the states’ marijuana laws, a listing of approved medical conditions and cultivation rules for each state, and link to the state’s marijuana laws can be found at ProCon.org’s 20 Legal Medical Marijuana states and DC’s webpage.

There is Legislation to Legalize Medical Marijuana Pending in 4 States

As of August 21, 2014, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania have legislation to legalize marijuana for medical use. You can review a summary of the legislation and find a links to Bills at ProCon.org’s Four States with Pending Legislation to Legalize Medical Marijuana webpage.

Keeping up with all the Changes

If you live in one of the state listed above, as having laws and regulations which make the use of marijuana for certain people, or for all adults, legal, your first step is to go and read your state’s laws concerning marijuana. Once you are familiar with the current law, you can keep up to date by regularly checking your state’s official code or legislature’s website for updates on pending and new legislation and taking the time to read the legislation. You do not have to read all of it, just do a word search for marijuana.

You may also want to check with reputable marijuana proponent organizations such as NORML for updates on the laws in your state and other states within your federal district.

Even if you do not work in criminal law, you really should know what behaviors constitute a crime in your home state and any state where you regularly practice. Besides, the legalization of marijuana has the potential to affect other areas of the law, such as immigration, search and seizure, and contracts. So, it is a good idea to stay up-to-date and ready to handle any practice area cross-over’s that may arise as the result of the changing marijuana laws, particularly those laws with many grey areas, such as cultivation and distribution.

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About Shelley Riseden

Shelley M. Riseden is a freelance paralegal providing research, document preparation, and writing services to both attorneys and non-attorneys. She is an expert at conducting legal research and has a natural ability to grasp complex legal issues.Phone: 765.667.5139, E-mail: smriseden@earthlink.net or shelley@virtuallylegal.net, Skype: shelley.riseden, Yahoo: Virtually_Legal

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