Cite this article

NIDA. (2016, October 11). How Legal Is Marijuana?. Retrieved from

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The NIDA Blog Team
October 11 2016
Map showing states with marijuana laws
Image by NIDA.

Update (2019):

  • Illinois and the U.S. territories of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have legalized marijuana for use by adults, age 21 and over. (Legalization in Illinois will go into effect on January 1, 2020.)
  • Marijuana use was decriminalized in Hawaii, New Mexico, New York, and North Dakota. “Decriminalization” typically means it’s not a crime for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana, but it may still be confiscated and, in some states, people may face civil fines (fees) for possessing it. 


Update (2018): On November 7, 2018, voters in four states went to the polls to decide on changes to their marijuana laws:

  • Voters in Michigan legalized the sale and use of marijuana.
  • Voters in Utah and Missouri legalized medical marijuana.
  • North Dakota did not legalize recreational marijuana.

In total, 33 states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws legalizing marijuana in some form.

(Information is current as of November 7, 2018.)

Update (2016): On Nov. 8, 2016, voters in eight states made changes to their marijuana laws, according to uncertified results. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota legalized marijuana for medical use. The details of the laws and when they go into effect vary by state.

Original post, current as of Oct. 11, 2016:

There’s been a lot of talk in the U.S. lately about legalizing marijuana. Maybe you’ve heard stories in the news about some states that have legalized weed (or are debating whether to do that) and wondered, what does that mean for you?

Recreational marijuana

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: If you’re a teen, it’s never legal to use marijuana recreationally (that is, just to get high).

Marijuana is also still illegal under U.S. federal law, even in states that have passed laws to make it legal under state law.

Confused yet? Okay, so what about those state laws?

The District of Columbia and four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) allow adults to use marijuana recreationally. While the laws in these places vary, all of them prohibit people under the age of 21 from using marijuana recreationally.

Medical marijuana

Some research suggests that marijuana may have the potential to help treat some health conditions including pain, nausea, epilepsy, and others. But there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and patients across the country are using marijuana strains and extracts that haven’t been fully tested or shown to be effective for their medical condition.

So far, 25 states and D.C. have passed laws to let people use marijuana with recommendations from their doctors (and sometimes by fulfilling other requirements, like having a medical marijuana license). The federal government has decided not to challenge those laws to any great extent. But people who buy marijuana in a state where it’s legal (for medicinal or recreational use) cannot take it across state lines into a state where it is not legal. So it remains a confusing issue.

Marijuana hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and that approval is necessary to grow and sell medicine in this country. But researchers are studying possible medical uses for marijuana and some of the chemicals it contains. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which enforces marijuana laws in the U.S., recently said it would increase the number of places allowed to grow the plant for research purposes in hopes of making it easier for more scientists to study marijuana.

So just to repeat, nothing in the law has changed for teens; using weed to get high is still illegal, wherever you live in the U.S. Depending on what scientists learn about marijuana’s value as medicine, it may (or may not) become legal for more people with certain health problems.