Legalization in North America

Posted by Angelica Sorauf on

As more studies come out proving the medical benefits of cannabis use, the legal standard of both medical and recreational marijuana is changing across the world.  The first country to legalize marijuana, Uruguay, is setting the stage across Europe.  But North America is growing more divided over their legislation regarding marijuana use.  Whether you’re making travel plans or simply looking to keep up to date, we’re looking at how far legalization has made it in North America, and what that means for the continent from a global perspective.

United States

Marijuana Recreationally Legal: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Washington D.C.

Marijuana Medically Legal: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Washington D.C. 

The first state to legalize medical marijuana was California in 1996 with California Proposition 215.  Since this proposition, medical marijuana has been made legally available in 30 states.  Medical marijuana prescriptions were available to patients suffering from diagnoses of cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease,  multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, seizures, Wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and PTSD after studies began to show that marijuana aided in the symptoms that resulted from these diseases.  The availability for different diagnoses varies from state to state as well, meaning if you have Crohn’s disease in Nevada for example, you might have to consider a move to California where patients are applicable.

Marijuana first became available recreationally to anyone 21 years and older in Colorado and Washington in 2012.  Not only this help redefine the way that marijuana use is culturally viewed in the United States, it paved the way for states such as Oregon and Alaska to follow suit in 2015.  In the 2016 election, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and California voters also helped pass legislation to legalize recreational marijuana for anyone 21 years and older.

States with Decriminalization Laws: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont 

Cities with Decriminalization Laws: Berkeley, CA; Miami, FL; Orlando, FL; Tampa, FL; Chicago, IL; Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Ann Arbor, MI; Berkley, MI; Detroit, MI; East Lansing, MI; Ferndale, MI; Flint, MI; Grand Rapids, MI; Huntington Woods, MI; Lansing, MI; Jackson, MI; Keego Harbor, MI; Mount Pleasant, MI; Pleasant Ridge, MI; Portage, MI; Port Huron, MI; Saginaw, MI; Columbia, MO; Santa Fe, NM; New York, NY; Bellaire, OH; Logan, OH; Newark, OH; Roseville, OH; Toledo, OH; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; Milwaukee, WI; Monona, WI

CBD Oil Legalized: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Decriminalization of Marijuana has been around in the states since 1973, over 40 years after most states chose prohibition from 1911-1933.  Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana, reducing jail time for those caught with possession under a certain limit to a mere fine.  However, not all states have completely decriminalized, and in some cases being caught with even a small amount could result in criminal charges.  Since the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and the largest prison population, many are beginning to question the justification of criminal charges for possessing a substance that is legal in other states.  Today, in 2016, decriminalization efforts continue across the country.

More recently, states with harsher charges have been working to legalize CBD oil, the extract of cannabidiol that makes medical marijuana so helpful for patients.  However, the logistics are still very tricky regarding CBD oil since it can be hard to legally obtain even if it is legal within your state, and recent efforts from the DEA are challenging the legalization of CBD still by adding a special code for it in the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I substance alongside marijuana and heroin.


Canada perhaps is making the most headway in North America for cannabis legalization.  Like the United States, Canada first prohibited marijuana in 1923.  Through the 1960’s and 70’s, cannabis usage began to increase exponentially, until 2001 when Health Canada decided to regulate medical cannabis for doctors to prescribe to patients suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord disease, arthritis, and epilepsy.  In 2014, this program was expanded to any patient who could obtain a medical prescription from a licensed practitioner.

Since the early 2000’s, Canada has acted as an asylum to many refugees from the United States who have received criminal charges for their cannabis use.  This is due to Canada’s more federally-accepted view of marijuana, rather than the United States’s state-by-state legalization.  Canada is not unfamiliar to regional differences though, as cities such as Vancouver have allowed the sale of marijuana since 2005, and today some dispensaries will sell recreationally to anyone 19 years or older.

The current head of the government, the Liberal Party spearheaded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, ran on legalizing recreational marijuana at the federal level.  Just a few weeks ago in December, 2016, a report was released detailing the plans to legalize in 2017.  If the liberal government follows through, that means Canada will be the first country in North America to federally legalize marijuana, and only the second in the world after Uruguay to completely legalize the sale, transport, and possession of marijuana.  Currently, the British Columbia province is one of the cannabis capitals of the world for its ideal growing region, and cannabis is one of the primary cash crops of the province.  British Columbia currently exports 95% of its cannabis plants to the United States.


Medical marijuana is currently a hot button issue in Mexico.  Though possession and cultivation have been decriminalized, marijuana is still very illegal in Mexico.  However, just recently in December, 2016, Mexico passed a new bill in the senate legalizing medical marijuana with 1% or less active THC.  This is mainly for CBD oils and tinctures, but it opens the door for more research and open-mindedness in the Mexican community.

This bill received overwhelming support in the Mexican senate, winning the vote count 98 to 7.  This vote comes after a November, 2015 decision from the Mexico Supreme Court that to prohibit medical cannabis to citizens is an infringement on human rights.

US Territories

Currently, marijuana laws in US territories are similarly divided like the states within the main continent.  Marijuana is still illegal in American Somoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, although it has been decriminalized in the Virgin Islands.  The Virgin Islands have held medical cannabis referendums in both 2012 and 2014, where results showed that the majority 56% of Virgin Islands citizens were in favor of medical marijuana  Rather recently, Guam residents voted to pass a ballot on November 4, 2014 that legalizes medical marijuana for patients suffering “debilitative conditions.”  This was just four years after a failed attempt to legalize medical marijuana in 2010, after a public hearing was attended by only one person  And just last year, the governor of Puerto Rico signed an executive order also legalizing medical marijuana after its prohibition since 1932.


As the United States and Cuba begin to make political amends, tourism to Cuba has skyrocketed.  However, Fidel Castro banned anything considered a “social detriment” in the country, and a simple possession charge could see you in prison for up to 10 years.  It is said that tourists are also being targeted now for routine checks given the availability of cannabis in nearby countries. 


Referred to as ganja, cannabis use in Jamaica is tied primarily to the religion Rastafari in which cannabis is used in a spiritual sense.  Though it was estimated that up to 5% of the Jamaican population practices Rastafarianism, cannabis was still prohibited from 1913 up to its decriminalization in 2015.  The decriminalization in Jamaica reduces possession charges from a criminal offense to a petty offense, and allows both the cultivation of plants and possession of up to 2 ounces.  Additionally, the decriminalization protects those practicing the Rastafari faith and allows cannabis use for religious purpose, and even allows the sale of marijuana to tourists with a valid medical marijuana prescription.

Global Positioning

North America is just one continent in the cannabis game -- elsewhere, legalization efforts continue to both success and failure across the globe.  However, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a 1961 treaty from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, prohibits cannabis use internationally, and many suggest that the federal legalization of cannabis could put a country in bad favor with the UN.  Both Canada and the United States come close to running this risk, and many question what the next step will be for the United Nations.  But the more open-minded countries grow towards legalizing marijuana and studying its medical effects, the better chance smaller platforms across the world have.

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