Medicinal Marijuana - State vs. Federal Laws


Marijuana has been legalized in more than eighteen states in the USA. Still, the federal law maintains that marijuana consumption and possession are illegal. Such contradictions make a person question whether or not he should use medicinal marijuana. If a person is caught in the possession of marijuana in a state where it is not legalized then he could be prosecuted.

It is really quite a rare if a person faces a federal charge for using Marijuana for medicinal purposes or growing it as a member of medicinal marijuana growing cooperative. But such kind of cooperatives has been the target of various federal agencies regarding illegal use of grown marijuana.

Conflict between State and Federal Marijuana Laws

According to the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), Marijuana is considered as Scheduled 1 substance. By the CSA's definition, Schedule 1 substances have a higher potential for abuse and dependency with no recognized medicinal value or use for health purposes. The possession of marijuana, its cultivation, and its use are all federal crimes that potentially subject a person to heavy fines, prison time or both. Large-scale growing and trafficking of marijuana, especially purchase and sale across a state line, may trigger harsh penalties and lead the person to become the focus of both state and federal drug enforcement efforts.

Since the mid-1990's, many states to change have changed their marijuana laws, including the eighteen states that have legalized the controlled use of marijuana. Legalization has occurred in two forms: legalization for recreational purposes and legalization for medicinal purposes. Even with legalization, state-level penalties continue to apply to people who violate state law restrictions on the cultivation of marijuana or the amounts that they may legally possess.

There is a contradiction between the federal CSA law and many state laws in relation to marijuana cultivation and consumption. On one hand, federal law completely forbids all activities related to marijuana. On the other hand state law may permit people to possess and use marijuana.

Federal Agencies Go Hard on Marijuana Use

Federal agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have a history of prosecuting marijuana-related cases quite harshly. There are two type of organizations that are allowed to legally cultivate marijuana under state law:

  • Dispensaries - Dispensaries possess a stock of marijuana as permitted by state law.
  • Cooperatives - Cooperatives cultivate marijuana plants.

The DEA handles dispensaries and cooperatives  differently:

Marijuana Dispensaries

The DEA monitors legal marijuana dispensaries and, if a dispensary is discovered to be stocking more than the allowed limit of marijuana, it may be served with a cease and desist letter instructing them to shut down the dispensary and surrender its marijuana. If the dispensary is operated on rented premises, a second letter is sent to the owner of the property warning the owner that it could lose the property if illegal activity is not stopped. Property owners who receive notices from the DEA will normally take strong measures to stop unlawful activity or to evict their tenants.

Cooperative and Collectives

Cooperatives and collectives are groups of doctors and patients who cultivate the Marijuana at a private place as permitted by state law. The DEA takes a softer approach to cooperatives than it does to dispensaries, normally taking action only for their exceeding the allowed limits imposed by state law, as cooperatives grow marijuana exclusively for medicinal purposes.

These approaches are dependent upon the policy of the federal government, and are thus subject to change.

When Can a Patient Face a Federal Penalty

Patients are much less likely than commercial operators to face federal criminal charges. Still, patients should be aware that DEA monitors marijuana use that is legal under state law, and could seek a warrant for the search of their premises if they believe that the patient is abusing the law or may be involved in the illegal purchase or sale of marijuana.

To minimize the chance of becoming drawn into a state or federal investigation or prosecution over marijuana use or possession, patients can take the following steps:

Know Your State's Marijuana-Related Laws

If you are a patient and your doctor has prescribed you to take marijuana for a medical condition, before you buy marijuana make sure that you fully understand your state's legal limits on how much marijuana you can possess, as well as where and how the marijuana may be legally transported and sold.

Keep Your Activities Small and Low-Key

Patients should make sure that they do not exceed state law restrictions on the amount of marijuana that the may legally possess. For example, in Colorado, according to Amendment 64, if a person is 21 years or older, that person may cultivate up to six plants for private use only. A patient who exceeds that limit could face a state law penalty of a fine of $500 to $5,000, up to 18 months prison time, or both.

Don't Share Your Marijuana

Patients should not share their medicinal marijuana with anybody else.

Do Not Buy Marijuana from a Non-Legal Store

Before buying marijuana, a patient should ask the vendor to show his license, and should purchase only from a licensed vendor.

Copyright © 2017 Steven J. Pisani, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Feb 27, 2017.