Why is Cannabis Still Illegal in Some States?


Cannabis is accepted as a medical treatment and as a recreational substance in many states. However, despite the quick pace of legalization, there are still many American states that still consider marijuana illegal.

Before we dive into which states allow cannabis use and to what extent, let’s examine the different intricacies of legality.

Types of Legal Marijuana

There are two main types of legal marijuana: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. Not every state has legalized both uses. Some states only have legal medical marijuana but do not allow recreational use.


Medical marijuana dates, legally, back to 1996 with the passing of California’s Compassionate Care Act, also known as Proposition 215. Prop 215 made medical marijuana legal for public consumption with a valid doctor’s order.

Since 1996, 37 states and 4 U.S. territories have legal medical marijuana. 

Legal medical marijuana requires a medical marijuana card to purchase. A medical marijuana card is essentially an ongoing prescription that gives an individual access to cannabis dispensaries. Medical Marijuana Cards are obtained by visiting a doctor for an examination and prescription.

Medical marijuana cards also provide a tax break on cannabis products.


In 2012, Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana for adult use. Like alcohol or tobacco, marijuana is a regulated substance that requires a minimum age for purchase.

As of 2021, 18 American states and 2 U.S. territories have legal recreational marijuana. In 2022, there are multiple states with legislation in process that will legalize recreational use.

Recreational cannabis does not require a medical marijuana card but is subject to hefty state and federal taxes.

Decriminalized vs. Illegal

In some states marijuana is decriminalized but not yet legal. For many states, decriminalization of marijuana is a step in the long process to legalize marijuana.

Decriminalization, in most cases, means that there is no criminal consequence to possessing small quantities of cannabis for personal consumption. If found in possession of cannabis in one of these states, you may be subject to a monetary fine but will not face criminal charges, jail time, or a criminal record.

This does not apply if you have intent to sell and distribute cannabis.

The 50 States (and then some)

In the United States, a total of 37 states and 4 territories have legal medical marijuana. Of those 37, only 18 states and 2 territories have legal recreational marijuana. Another 13 states and 1 territory have decriminalized marijuana but it is technically still illegal.

At the federal level, marijuana is considered a class 1 substance and is illegal. This means that on federal grounds, such as embassies and airports, marijuana is illegal despite other state laws.


Marijuana is legal recreationally and medically in the following states, territories, and Tribal Nations.

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • District of Columbia
  • Guam
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (South Dakota)
  • Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe (South Dakota)
  • Suquamish Tribe (Washington State)
  • Squaxin Island Tribe (Washington State)
  • Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (North Carolina)
  • St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (New York)

Medical Only

The following states and territories have legal medical marijuana but do not have legal recreational use. We have not included states that have restrictions on medical use such as only allowing CBD oils of less than 5% THC.

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa (with restrictions)
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Puerto Rico
  • U.S. Virgin Islands


The following states and territories have decriminalized marijuana. Some of these states have specific legislation that dictates limits of possession. States may also limit decriminalization to the first offense only. Secondary offenses may then be considered a misdemeanor or felony crime. 

  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Some cities in Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • U.S. Virgin Islands


In these states and territories, marijuana is illegal to varying degrees. Some states will charge possession as a misdemeanor while others charge it as a felony.

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia (except for some cities)
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania (except for some cities)
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming
  • American Samoa
  • Puerto Rico

A Brief History of Illegalization of Marijuana

The illegalization of marijuana is a complicated and winding story. There are historical records that show cannabis use for medical purposes dating as far back as the early 19th century.

However, at the turn of the 20th century, the illegalization of cannabis began in full force.

With the 1910 Mexican Revolution came mass emigration of Mexicans to the United States. This resulted in a larger presence of marijuana in the southern United States. Marijuana was inextricably linked to Mexican emigration, an association that could not be overlooked by southern officials.

Under the hospices of peacekeeping, officials, and lawmakers associated violence and crime with marijuana using Mexican immigrants.

Essentially, the beginnings of the illegalization of marijuana are founded on racism and classism. 

The fire was fueled further by the growing call for prohibition which reached its height in the 1920s through the 1930s. 

The War on Drugs

In more recent years, during the first Bush administration, the War on Drugs escalated its advances and we saw a surge in criminal arrests for minor drug possessions.

These minor marijuana arrests led to inflated sentences that left individuals in prison for years alongside violent offenders. All of this contributed to the American industrial prison complex, thus making the criminalization of marijuana an economic issue as well as a political issue.

As marijuana becomes legal in many states, judiciary courts and prison systems are forced to backpedal. These processes are largely bureaucratic and long-winded. 

Alongside the prison economic factor, is the introduction of a new, highly popular product onto the market. The cannabis industry is booming and states must determine how to regulate this new economy. 

For all of these reasons and many more, legalization of marijuana can be slow-moving in some states that rely on the status quo. In other states, legislation is being pushed through quickly so as to inject stimulus into wilting economies by way of the cannabis industry.