Marijuana Laws: Understanding Legalization and Decriminalization in California

by | May 27, 2016 | Drug Crimes

California voters passed Proposition 215 two decades ago, which legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Despite the amount of time that has passed since this progressive shift away from federal laws criminalizing marijuana for any purpose, states are still struggling to pass laws pertaining to legal marijuana usage for recreational purposes. In California, recreational use of marijuana is currently prohibited by law.

There are at least ten marijuana-based initiatives that may show up on the November ballots in California, all of which attempt to join Colorado, Washington, and a handful of other states in the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Regardless of where you stand on the legalization debate, if you have been arrested for marijuana possession or attempted sale, it is important to consult with an experienced drug crimes defense attorney to protect your legal rights from arrest through trial.

Understanding Marijuana Crimes

Possessing marijuana in any amount is a federal and state crime in California. Federal law prohibits possession under the Controlled Substances Act of the United States Code. California law prohibits marijuana possession in any amount, though small quantity possession has been decriminalized and there are noted exceptions for those in possession of marijuana that carry valid medical marijuana identification cards.


About half of the states, including California, have decriminalized marijuana possession in small quantities. This does not mean that marijuana is a legal substance to possess. Instead, it means that a first-time offender possessing only small quantities of marijuana will typically be treated with what amounts to a civil infraction, and will not face jail time or a criminal record. It also means that law enforcement has decided to “turn a blind eye,” so to speak, for these relatively minor offenses and will not actively prosecute those in possession of small amounts of marijuana, absent aggravating circumstances. Possession of more than 28.5 grams of marijuana, however, will lead to misdemeanor or felony charges, possible jail time, fines, and a tarnished criminal record.

The rationale behind decriminalization is that it gives people a chance to make a mistake without damaging their criminal record or clogging our jails with comparatively low-level, non-violent criminals. Decriminalization differs from legalization, which actually abolishes or revises criminal statutes to make marijuana possession non-criminal. Only a handful of states have actually legalized recreational use of marijuana—California is not yet one of them.

Notably, the state laws that decriminalize or legalize marijuana are at odds with current federal laws that prohibit possession of controlled substances. In all circumstances, federal law trumps state and local government law—that is, states can make their own rules so long as they are not at odds with federal law. This creates a unique dichotomy between state and federal regulation of marijuana that is creating enforcement problems and confusion and inconsistency among drug users, law enforcement, and courts.

The federal government, while not specifically endorsing the right of the states to make their own decisions regarding possession of such drugs, has its own “turn a blind eye” approach to states that have successfully implemented programs regulating the use of marijuana in their jurisdictions. As such, the federal government is generally entrusting the states to meet their health and safety objectives through regulation and oversight and will choose not to meddle in the state’s affairs. This does not mean that you cannot be arrested for federal drug crimes in states where marijuana has a legal purpose. The federal marijuana laws remain in full force and effect, so even if you live in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, or Alaska, or if you are utilizing medical marijuana in California, you are technically still violating federal law.

Medical Marijuana

The use of marijuana in small quantities for pre-approved medical uses has been in place for two decades, though there are still significant debates about the program’s uses and efficiency. Anyone purchasing medical marijuana from any approved distributor in California must present a valid Medical Marijuana Identification Card (MMIC). In order to obtain a card, a doctor must provide a recommendation based on a qualifying medical condition, and you must prove your identity and residency.

One common misconception about medical marijuana is that so long as it was procured legally, it can be used by others. That is simply not the case. It is a crime to share marijuana with those that are not eligible under a qualifying medical condition, just as it is to possess marijuana without a valid MMIC. “Qualifying health conditions” refer to a list of serious medical conditions such as AIDS, cancers, and chronic health conditions that have been demonstrated to be alleviated by use of marijuana.

Medical marijuana, while beneficial to many people, does create law enforcement difficulties for the simple reason that marijuana can easily be shared with others that do not have a lawful right to possess it. Caretakers may take advantage of their relationship with those they are caring for and use the marijuana intended for their employers. Parents have also been found to use their children’s (minor or not) marijuana for personal use, which is also illegal. Additionally, there is a concern that children will be more easily able to access marijuana for recreational purposes from parents that are using the marijuana lawfully, simply by virtue of it being in the house.

Recreational Possession

Most people caught with marijuana are using it for recreational purposes. California and the federal government cite health and public safety concerns in prohibiting use, manufacture, and sale of marijuana for purely recreational purposes. Marijuana, while not addictive, has long been considered a “gateway” drug—in that it is the first drug that people use before turning to more potent and addictive substances such as cocaine, heroin, or other drugs. Additionally, concerns about driving while under the influence of drugs, legally obtained or not, have prompted potential legislation in California, particularly in light of the legalization of medical marijuana.

Penalties and Defenses

Simple possession of marijuana will usually be charged as a misdemeanor for relatively small quantities and for first-time offenders. Possession of marijuana in small amounts will usually subject you to up to a year in jail and up to $500 in fines. The sale of marijuana, in any quantity, is always a felony and even small-scale marijuana sales will generally result in up to three years in jail and up to $10,000 in associated fines. These are the “base” sentences. There are many things that can add significant jail time or fines (or make what would otherwise be charged as misdemeanors charged as felonies), such as:

  • Possession or sale of large quantities of marijuana
  • Transporting marijuana over state lines (which usually results in federal charges)
  • Selling to a minor
  • Being demonstrably under the influence of marijuana
  • Being demonstrably under the influence of marijuana while operating a vehicle
  • Using medical marijuana issued to another person (even if lawfully issued to the other person)
  • Having prior drug offenses
  • Being on probation for previous crimes
  • Possession accompanied by violence, threatened violence, or use of weapons
  • Use accompanying a traffic accident that caused injury to another

If any of these circumstances are present, it is possible that the marijuana charges will be more severe and may include other offenses. Some other offenses that may accompany possession include:

  • Sale of marijuana
  • Intent to distribute
  • Conspiracy crimes
  • Vehicular homicide
  • Civil infractions or civil lawsuits arising out of injuries caused to others while under the influence of marijuana
  • Sale to a minor
  • Probation or parole violations

It is clear that even though considered a relatively “minor” crime to most, marijuana charges may lead to significant prison time or the addition of other crimes. Marijuana is a popular drug, and while Californians are moving toward legalization, marijuana for recreational purposes is still illegal and is prosecuted by law enforcement officials to the full extent of the law.

Get Legal Help

While medical marijuana has allowed thousands of Californians safe, regulated access to marijuana for personal use, those that do not have legal access are in danger of being charged with criminal possession if they possess marijuana for recreational use only. Regardless of whether you are a medical marijuana user that wants to ensure you remain within the bounds of the law, a recreational user who has been charged with possession or distribution, or a repeat offender that is facing significant felony charges, Attorney Ambrosio E. Rodriguez can help.

As a former prosecutor, Attorney Rodriguez is an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney that has helped his clients through all types of drug crimes. He understands that a criminal conviction has the potential to affect your personal, professional, and educational opportunities, and will work hard to ensure that your legal rights are protected. Contact his Los Angeles office right away at (213) 995-6767 if you are facing criminal drug charges at the state or federal level in California.

To learn more, call our Los Angeles criminal defense law firm at 213-995-6767 or visit our contact us page to send us an email.