The term "medical marijuana" refers to the use, possession, and/or cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes. People who are terminally ill, or suffer from painful or long-term symptoms associated with certain diseases, such as epilepsy, AIDS, glaucoma, and cancer, often request medical marijuana as a form of treatment and/or pain relief. As a general principle, medical marijuana is no different than standard marijuana (or cannabis).
Medical Marijuana: State vs. Federal Law
A growing number of states have legalized medical cannabis within their borders. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, however, marijuana is classified as a "Schedule I drug," meaning it:
- Has the potential for abuse,
- Has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S., and
- Has a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.
As such, there is a growing debate concerning the personal medical use of marijuana and its legality.
On one side of the issue, some politicians and law enforcement officials would like to combat illegal drug use of marijuana and control some of its effects, such as the "wide open sale of marijuana under the guise of medical purpose." On the other side, some health advocates and other drug legalization groups would like to legalize the medical use of marijuana, believing that the drug is a valuable aid in the treatment of a wide range of medical conditions.
The U.S. government shifted its attention to larger drug trafficking issues when the Obama Administration took over in 2009, with the Department of Justice stating it would not prioritize the enforcement of federal marijuana laws on authorized users of medical marijuana or their caregivers. However, the DOJ resumed its prosecution of medical marijuana providers in 2011 and put pressure on publishers who run ads for medical marijuana dispensaries.
Medical Marijuana Laws
Medical marijuana laws are constantly changing and vary among geographical locations. Both federal and state laws make it a crime to use, grow, sell, or possess marijuana. The federal Supreme Court, for example, has stated that it is illegal to use, sell or possess marijuana, even for medical use (in the 2005 case of Gonzales v. Raich).
A growing number of states have legalized marijuana for medical (and even recreational) purposes, thereby removing any criminal penalties from doctors who prescribe the drug or from patients who use it within the bounds set by state law. California was the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 when it passed Proposition 215, also called the Compassionate Use Act. The law allows the possession and cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes upon a doctor's recommendation.
State medical marijuana laws typically set the boundaries under which the herb may be recommended, cultivated, possessed, and used. For instance, states may require written documentation from a person's doctor affirming that the person suffers from a debilitating condition and might benefit from the medical use of marijuana. Also, states may require people to present this documentation, or "marijuana ID card" prior to an arrest.
Learn about state-specific laws on our drug and alcohol violations legal answers page.
Other provisions may include limits on the type of conditions, such as HIV and AIDS, and the amount of marijuana that a person may possess, use, or grow. Finally, some states have other specific provisions, such as employee restrictions on the medical use of marijuana at work and certain ID card requirements and fees.
Medical Marijuana Penalties
Penalties for medical marijuana violations may include prison time, fines, or both, depending on the nature of the offense and the state where the occurrence took place. In states that have not legalized the medical use of marijuana, the charges are treated as general misdemeanor or felony drug charges.
In states which have decriminalized medical marijuana, penalties in the form of prison or fines may still apply, yet offenses are often treated as minor civil infractions.
For example, punishable circumstances may include:
- Possession over a certain amount (in grams);
- The sale of the drug to others, especially to or from a "minor";
- The cultivation of the drug in states where cultivation is not allowed; and
- Possession of marijuana paraphernalia.
Defenses: Know Your Legal Rights
Patients who are arrested on drug charges might use their medical status as a defense, before or during the trial, to help reduce any penalties. In addition, a patient may show a doctor's recommendation for marijuana to reduce penalties and help avoid jail time or fines altogether. Finally, a patient may want to claim the defense of medical necessity based on the clinical nature of his or her health condition.
It's important to check with a lawyer who specializes in medical marijuana cases to learn of your rights and responsibilities concerning the use and/or charges of medical marijuana.
Learn More About Medical Marijuana Laws from an Attorney
Understanding the ramifications of state and federal marijuana convictions and other criminal sentences can be the key to your financial and personal freedom. For this reason, your best move is to speak with a criminal defense attorney if you've been charged with a drug crime.