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California Marijuana Laws

California marijuana laws changed drastically over the past half-century. Although marijuana remains an illegal controlled substance under federal law, California moved to decriminalize possession in small amounts. State voters later enacted laws that permitted limited possession and use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.

Marijuana and cannabis are terms that both relate to products that come from the plant Cannabis sativa. The term marijuana is most often used with products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the chemical substance associated with the psychoactive effects of cannabis.

California state lawmakers decriminalized the possession of one ounce (28.5 grams) of marijuana in 1975. Possession of this small amount became punishable by only a $100 fine.

In 1996, California residents voted for Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which made possession and use of certain amounts of medical marijuana legal upon a physician's recommendation.

By 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Under this law, adults 21 and over may legally purchase, possess, and consume up to 28.5 grams (one ounce) of marijuana for personal use in their private residence or in an establishment licensed for marijuana consumption.

Many criminal sanctions for marijuana were immediately lifted after the passage of Proposition 64. State licenses to legally sell and produce recreational marijuana only began in January 2018. The move to recreational use also brought new cannabis taxes comprised of a 15% excise tax along with state and local sales taxes.

Recreational Cannabis and Its Restrictions

While the recreational use of cannabis is now legal, it is not without its restrictions. Cannabis retailers have purchase limits and face limitations on the types of products sold. Typically, dispensaries sell cannabis in the following forms:

  • Dried cannabis flower
  • Edibles
  • Topicals

Additionally, there are restrictions on the amount of THC allowed in edible cannabis products. For example, an edible product cannot contain more than 10 milligrams of THC per serving.

Property owners may also ban the use or possession of cannabis on their property. So, it is important to check your local jurisdiction and review any rental agreements from your landlord.

Medical Use of Cannabis Products

The California Department of Public Health manages the registration, verification, and authorization of the Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program. Qualified patients or their caregivers (also for minors) cannot maintain more than six mature or 12 immature cannabis plants. The following circumstances represent common medical conditions for which physicians may recommend medical marijuana to manage symptoms:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic Pain
  • Arthritis

It's important to remember under federal law, cannabis is still illegal. Under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug at this time (although there are efforts underway that may change this). Schedule I drugs are the most regulated due to their high potential for abuse. So, even though medical cannabis is legal in California, it is not allowed on federal land such as a national park.

Commercial Marijuana Activity

The Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act provides the general framework for the regulation of commercial cannabis activities in the state of California. This law requires anyone engaging in the retail cannabis business to have a license. It allows local governments to control activities in their jurisdictions.

Some cities and counties enacted local ordinances that introduced additional regulations from those set by California's cannabis laws. Ordinances are specific rules that set the time, place, and manner for businesses to operate within the local community. For example, the following cities approved equity ordinances to create an inclusive marketplace:

  • City of Los Angeles
  • City of Sacramento
  • City and county of San Francisco

As the lead agency in developing regulations for medical and adult-use cannabis in California, the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) is responsible for licensing retailers, distributors, testing labs, and microbusinesses. The DCC provides an online licensing system where people can apply for a license, search for a license, or file a complaint.

While the Safety Act required medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain a new license, it generally left the existing medical marijuana laws intact. One change to medical marijuana laws is that certain medical marijuana sales are exempt from sales and use tax.

California Marijuana Laws Overview

Find the basics of California marijuana laws highlighted in the table below.

Relevant California Marijuana Laws

California Business and Professions Code

Division 10, Cannabis

Sections 26,000 to 26,325

California Health and Safety Code

Division 10, Uniform Controlled Substances Act, Chapter 6, Offenses and Penalties, Article 2, Cannabis

Uniform Controlled Substances Act - Sections 11,000 to 11,651

Is Marijuana Legal in California?

Yes. California law permits possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes for those 18 years of age and older. (Minor patients must go through an adult caregiver.)

California law also permits possession and use of marijuana for recreational purposes for adults 21 years of age and older. However, legal use is restricted based on amount and type.

Illegal Possession

Those 21 and over may legally possess up to 28.5 grams of cannabis (one ounce) or up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis. For illegal possession of cannabis, the Health and Safety Code (Section 11357) provides the following potential penalties:
  • Those in possession of any amount of cannabis up to 28.5 grams (or 8 grams of concentrated cannabis) who are under 18 may be charged with an infraction. On a first offense, they may face 4 hours of drug education or counseling and up to 10 hours of community service. On a second offense, they may face 6 hours of drug education or counseling and up to 20 hours of community service.
  • Those in possession of any amount of cannabis up to 28.5 grams (or 8 grams of concentrated cannabis) who are at least 18 but younger than 21 may be charged with an infraction, which is punishable by a fine of up to $100.
  • Those under 18 who possess more than 28.5 grams of cannabis (or 8 grams of concentrated cannabis) may be charged with an infraction. On a first offense, they may face up to 8 hours of drug education or counseling and up to 40 hours of community service. On a second offense, they may face up to 10 hours of drug education and counseling and up to 60 hours of community service.
  • Those 18 and over who possess more than 28.5 grams of cannabis (or more than 8 grams of concentrated cannabis) face criminal penalties that can include imprisonment in county jail for up to 6 months, a fine of up to $500, or both.

Illegal Sale

  • The sale of any amount of cannabis by someone age 18 or over who does not possess a license to sell cannabis is a misdemeanor, which can result in up to 6 months in jail and/or fines up to $500. See Health and Safety Code, Section 11360.
  • A person who engages in commercial cannabis activity without a license will be subject to civil penalties of up to three times the amount of the license fee for each violation, with each day of operation constituting a separate violation. See Business and Professions Code, Section 26038.

Additional Limitations

There are additional limitations to smoking and possessing marijuana, even if a person is over 21. The limitations include (but are not limited to):

  • Smoking or ingesting cannabis in public (except in accordance with section 26200 of the Business and Professions Code). See Health and Public Safety Code Section 11362.3
  • Smoking/ingesting while operating a vehicle or being under the influence of a drug while operating a vehicle. See Vehicle Code Section 23221 and Section 23152.
  • Possessing an open container of cannabis while operating a motor vehicle or riding as a passenger in a vehicle (and accessible to the driver). See Vehicle Code Section 23222.
  • Possessing cannabis within 1,000 feet of a school. See Health and Safety Code Section 11357.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the status of any state law(s) you are reviewing.

Questions About California Marijuana Laws? Get Legal Help Today

Even with the legalization of marijuana in California, there are still ways to be in violation of state law. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, consider speaking with an experienced criminal law attorney to protect your rights. If you're planning on opening your own legal cannabis shop, speak with a local business law attorney to make sure your business is in full compliance with the law.

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