Is Medical Marijuana Legal Under Federal Law?

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, even if it is possessed for approved medical reasons pursuant to state medical marijuana laws. However, inconsistencies in how federal law is enforced and applied to medical marijuana cases have created confusion among many medical marijuana patients and providers.

[Note: This is a constantly evolving area of the law that changes quickly. Consult with the authorities or a local attorney for the most up-to-the-minute status of the law in your jurisdiction.] 

Controlled Substances Act is Still Good Law

The Controlled Substances Act is the federal law passed in 1970 that regulates the manufacture, cultivation, possession, use, and distribution of certain drugs, including marijuana. The federal law does not distinguish between marijuana used for recreational purposes and that used for valid medical reasons.

Marijuana is classified under federal law as a Schedule I drug, which means the government views it as highly addictive and having no medical value. Doctors may not prescribe marijuana for medical use under federal law.

Many people have been arrested and prosecuted under federal law for possessing, using, or distributing marijuana for medical reasons. However, President Barack Obama, soon after taking office in 2009, announced his administration would not seek to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers, as long as they conformed to state laws.

That stance was in stark contrast to previous presidential administrations, which conducted federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and clinics, including those operating within state medical marijuana laws. Under President Obama, those federal raids on approved medical marijuana dispensaries have largely stopped.

Can a Person Go To Federal Prison for Use or Possession of Medical Marijuana?

Absolutely, yes. Because marijuana is classified as illegal by the Controlled Substances Act, its possession, cultivation, distribution, and use is against federal law. The law does not recognize the medical use of marijuana or distinguish it from recreational use.

 

Even in states that allow medical marijuana, you may still be arrested, charged, prosecuted, and sent to federal prison on drug-related charges. If you possess or cultivate more marijuana than your state allows or you distribute or transport the drug in ways not permitted by your state or the federal government, you may be prosecuted under federal and/or state laws.

What Defenses Are Available to Medical Marijuana Patients Who Are Charged With Illegal Possession of Marijuana?

Medical marijuana patients who are charged with illegal possession of marijuana in states where the medicinal use of marijuana has been approved may have rights to avoid prosecution. It’s usually as simple as showing the arresting officer the valid medical marijuana prescription, doctor’s note, or other documentation permitting possession of the drug.

In cases where a medical marijuana patient is charged with possessing or cultivating more marijuana than is allowed, the patient may be able to argue that their individual medical needs call for possessing or growing more marijuana than is allowed by state law. A note from a doctor confirming this need can be particularly helpful in asserting this defense.

In Colorado, patients who do not join the state’s medical marijuana registry as required or possess greater amounts of the drug than allowed may argue that it is medically necessary for them to possess that amount in defense to marijuana possession charges.

Even in states like Maryland, where the medical use of marijuana has not been approved, people may be able to assert the medical need to use marijuana as a defense to drug-possession charges.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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