BY BEN THOMAS | Illustration by Simon Diago
Cannabis decriminalization is still wildly inconsistent from one U.S. state to the next. While weed remains a Schedule-I illegal drug at the federal level (as it’s been since Richard Nixon signed 1970’s Controlled Substances Act into law), a full 19 states have voted not to enforce this law, either for patients with a medical prescription, or for anyone who wants to purchase cannabis for medical or recreational use. Still, for people traveling between different states, the exact legal status of their cannabis can be confusing—which is why we’ve created this guide.
Since the situation is evolving rapidly in many states—with some, like Iowa and South Dakota, repealing and un-repealing cannabis laws every few years—this guide will be updated on an ongoing basis, to reflect the realities on the ground as accurately as possible. That said, the distinctions between progressive states (where weed is largely or entirely legalized), cautious states (where some possession is decriminalized), and battleground states (which have taken harshly anti-cannabis law-enforcement stances) have become clearly defined enough for us to share current state-by-state guidelines.
Along the way, we’ll take a closer look at some particularly progressive pieces of legislation, like California’s Prop 64 and New York’s Marijuana Legislation and Taxation Act (MRTA)—as well as some of the U.S.’s most reactionary anti-cannabis measures, like the Idaho governor’s veto of SB 1146, South Dakota’s overturning of Amendment A, and Idaho’s repeal of the Medical Cannabidiol Act of 2014. In particular, we’ll highlight states where you could be in danger of arrest and incarceration for cannabis possession, even if you have a prescription.
Although we won’t have room to examine all 50 states’ legislation in detail, we will be updating this article with an easily digestible state-by-state guide, so you can quickly check the legality of cannabis in any state where you plan to travel in the near future. But for a start, let’s take a closer look at the states that are setting positive examples in cannabis legalization.
As of summer 2022, the U.S.’s leader in pro-cannabis legislation is the state of New York, whose 2015 Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) legalizes cannabis for personal recreational use. What’s more, New York’s Senate Bill S6579A automatically expunges criminal records for people arrested for possession of two ounces or less of cannabis. The state has even set up a funding program for cannabis cultivators and distributors, of which 50 percent is reserved for “social equity” applicants who’ve suffered under the racially biased war on drugs. Although implementation of these policies remains disappointing, the intent is inspiring all the same.
California’s pro-cannabis laws also set a strong progressive example. The state’s Assembly Bill 1793 fully legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, and the law allows people charged with possession to petition to have their records expunged (though this is a long, costly process). The state of Colorado, meanwhile, has legalized possession of up to two ounces of recreational cannabis—and thanks to the state’s well-earned reputation for top-grade weed and outdoor adventuring, cities like Denver and Aspen are rapidly becoming cannabis tourism hotspots.
Cannabis is also fully legal in the states of Alaska (which is currently considering its own expungement bill), Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada (where weed dispensaries have become a major draw on the Las Vegas Strip), Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia (D.C.).
Although each of these states has its own regulations around how cannabis can be purchased, who’s allowed to purchase it, and how much an adult is allowed to have in their possession at any one time, you can basically breathe easy (and imbibe freely!) in all the states listed above.
However, it’s crucial to remember that even in states where recreational cannabis is legal, individual towns can (and do) still enforce federal anti-weed laws on a local level. For example, four towns in Colorado’s conservative San Luis Valley voted to criminalize cannabis sales in 2022, despite the fact that Colorado as a whole is one of the most pro-cannabis states in the union. So wherever you travel in the U.S., the smartest approach is to investigate the cannabis policies of any town you plan to visit, before you make any weed-related plans there.
In the second category are states where some cannabis products are legal or decriminalized, under certain circumstances—but where it’s still a good idea to be careful about how much you have in your possession, what form(s) it’s in, and who knows you have it. For your own safety, you’ll definitely want to avoid bringing cannabis into states on this second list, even if you have a legal prescription in your own state, and can legally purchase it in some of these states.
Alabama, for example, allows medical cannabis with a prescription from an in-state physician, but doesn’t recognize patients from other states, and hasn’t yet decriminalized personal possession, either. That means even if you’ve got a legal out-of-state cannabis prescription, you still can’t legally buy cannabis in Alabama, and can be arrested and incarcerated for bringing your personal stash into the state. Along similar lines, Florida launched a medical cannabis program in 2014, but you can still be arrested and jailed for possession without a prescription there—and that’s 3.73 times more likely to happen if you’re not white.
Other states on the “cautious” list have fully legalized adult recreational purchases of certain cannabis products, but not of products that are federally classified as “marijuana.” Texas, for example, doesn’t have a medical marijuana program at all—but anyone over age 21 can legally walk into a CBD shop off the street, and purchase products derived from a legal “hemp” plant that contains less than 0.3 percent THC by weight. This includes not only CBD oils and edibles, but also CBD flower sprayed with synthetic delta-8 and delta-9-THC that’ve been created from legal “hemp” plants. In other words, recreational weed is effectively both legal and illegal in Texas, depending on what name it’s sold under.
Cannabis legislation is also “mixed”—if not downright confusing—in the states of Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii (where it’s technically decriminalized but possession can still be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the amount), Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and West Virginia.
In many of these states, you’ll find that attitudes toward cannabis vary widely by city and region, with some areas being very weed-tolerant, while others are known for cracking down heavily on small-scale personal cannabis possession. Wherever you go in these states, though, it’s important to remember that law-enforcement officials can legally arrest you for having weed, so the safest move is to keep your recreation on the DL.
It’s highly inadvisable to purchase cannabis in any state in this third category, because weed is mostly or entirely illegal in these states, and people still regularly get sent to jail for possessing it. When visiting states on this list, you’ll want to be extremely careful when (and with whom) you partake in cannabis, medical or otherwise—in fact, the smartest play may be to take a break from weed altogether for the duration of your visit.
Some states on this third list will be unsurprising for anyone who follows national politics. For example, it’s not exactly shocking that Mississippi—a state with some of the country’s lowest rates of literacy and education—is also home to some of America’s most reactionary anti-cannabis legislation: In 2021, Mississippi’s supreme court overturned Amendment 65, which legalized medical cannabis for less than a year before conservative legislators killed it.
However, other states have become cannabis battlegrounds precisely because they’re so culturally and politically divided. For example, Iowa—which has long been a “swing state” in national presidential elections—voted to decriminalize medical cannabis in 2014, then re-criminalized it in 2017, then decriminalized purchases of up to 4.5 grams of THC every 90 days. Cannabis is currently a low priority for Iowa’s law enforcement, but the future could swing either way.
Some states in this third category, like Indiana, allow cannabis prescriptions only for very specific medical conditions—while others, like Wyoming, Wisconsin and Kentucky, are even more restrictive, only allowing prescriptions of CBD extracts for certain medical ailments. Still other states, like Tennessee, South Carolina and Kansas, have tried launching pilot studies for cannabis prescriptions, or are debating the necessary legislation, but haven’t yet embraced full-fledged medical cannabis programs—and they’re unlikely to do so in the near future.
A few states, however, have taken fierce and unambiguous anti-cannabis stances. Idaho, for example, may be “the most anti-cannabis state in the union.” Idaho’s governor personally vetoed a medical marijuana bill in 2015—and today, Black Idahoans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than whites, while any cannabis arrest in Idaho can carry a jail sentence. North Carolina, meanwhile, de-legalized a pilot medical cannabis study launched in 2014; while South Dakota’s state legislature recently overturned Amendment A, which would’ve legalized recreational cannabis.
Activists in all these battleground states continue to push for sane and compassionate cannabis legislation—but they face a hard road ahead. Conservative legislators in all 14 of these states have taken explicit positions against the nationwide trend toward legalization, while many voters remain entrenched in outdated fears fueled by America’s racially paranoid “war on drugs.” In states like these, cultural change will likely be a necessary first step on the path to legal progress.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He runs the publishing company House Blackwood, and produces the podcast Horrifying Tales of Wonder! Follow him on Twitter at @writingben.