Tomorrow Is 4/20: Know Your Pot Laws; Where Is Weed Legal?

By Philip Ross on April 19, 2013 2:14 PM EDT

tomorrow is 4/20
NEON GREEN: State with legal medical cannabis. DARK GREEN: State with both medical and decriminalization laws. ARMY GREEN: State with decriminalized cannabis possession laws. PURPLE: State with legalized cannabis. (Photo: Creative Commons/Lokal_Profil)

Tomorrow is 4/20, a day that fast-food aficionados hold in high regard - along with Rihanna and Bill Maher.

For those of you who will be "celebrating" the sacred stoner holiday, don't get caught with your head in a cloud of smoke; take a moment to educate yourself about pot laws in the U.S., as the legal landscape has made some major shifts lately.

Geography Of U.S. Marijuana Laws

First thing to keep in mind on 4/20 is this: possession of any amount of marijuana is still illegal under U.S. Federal law, and comes with a high price for offenders. Even though a number of states allow the possession of marijuana for various medical reasons, there is no such thing as medical marijuana in the eyes of the Feds.

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Under the Controlled Substance Act, or CSA, which was passed in 1970 and regulates the manufacturing, possession, use and distribution of certain substances, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it is considered to have a high potential for abuse.

However, in Nov. 2012, both Washington and Colorado passed legislation that ended marijuana prohibition and will allow pot to be regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol once the legislation fully goes into effect. Both states - Colorado with Amendment 64, Washington with Initiative 502 - now allow people 21 and older to smoke pot under state law.

The new legislation, however, still doesn't trump federal law.

"Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 6 in Washington State, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law," Oregon state attorney Jenny A. Durkan said after the law passed last November, according to the RT network.

In addition to recent changes in Washington and Colorado, 18 states and Washington, D.C,, allow the prescription and sale of marijuana for medical purposes.

The first state to pass marijuana legislation legalizing medical use of pot was California in 1996, under the premise that pot can ease pain or counter the side effects of chemotherapy, CBS News reports.

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize small amounts of pot over 40 years ago, making the possession of one ounce of marijuana or less a traffic-type infraction. USA Today reports that in 1973, the Oregon State legislature made the maximum fine for possession of one ounce of pot or less $100 (it was raised to $1,000 in 1989).

Recent Regulatory Changes

Even with backlash from the federal government, the pot legal landscape in the U.S. is still evolving, and public opinion is shifting on the subject as well. A Gallup poll from 2010 showed that 50 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana use. That number is significantly greater than the 40 percent approval rate Gallup reported in 2009, and far greater than the 30 percent reported in 2000.

Also, according to Gallup, 64 percent of Americans in Dec. 2012 were opposed to the Feds treading on the toes of states where marijuana is legal.

On Monday April 8, Maryland became the latest state to approve a bill legalizing medical marijuana. The Atlantic reports that the state senate approved the bill 42 to 4; state governor Martin O'Malley is expected to sing it into law.

Oregon is now considering a bill that would regulate the production, processing and sale of marijuana

"It makes sense to regulate marijuana like alcohol and for the Legislature to take the lead on the issue and make sure sensible regulations are in place," Anthony Johnson, who leads New Approach Oregon, told USA Today. "Marijuana legalization is coming to Oregon sooner rather than later."

From the Office of National Drug Control Policy:

Many of these state medical marijuana laws originated in order to create a legal defense to state criminal possession laws or to remove state criminal penalties for purported medical use of marijuana. Since then, many have evolved into state authorization for state-based production and distribution of marijuana for purported medical purposes. These state laws vary greatly in their criteria and implementation, and many states are experiencing vigorous internal debates about the safety, efficacy, and legality of their marijuana laws. Many local governments are even creating zoning and enforcement ordinances that prevent marijuana dispensaries from operating in their communities.

Even with the changes in marijuana laws, many states continue to debate the safety and efficacy of their pot laws. Also, even in states that legalized marijuana, many local governments are creating zoning and enforcement ordinances that keep pot dispensaries from opening in their communities, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

What Are The Penalties For Possession?

RT network reports that under current federal legislation, a first-time offender caught with marijuana can be forced to pay a $1,000 fine and spend a year in prison. Repeat offenders face penalties that include three-year prison stints and fines reaching $5,000.

Selling and cultivating marijuana are a whole other ball game, with cultivation penalties starting at five years in prison and $250,000 fines.

So, if you're going to celebrate 4/20, know your rights - and your restrictions.

Happy (legal) smoking!

Read more from iScience Times:

Marijuana Tax: Will Potheads End The Budget Crisis? [REPORT]

$4M Of Pot On Beach; A Ton Of Weed, Literally, Abandoned On Cali Beach

Smoking Weed: New Ban in Washington Problem For Medical Marijuana Users

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