Where is Marijuana Legal? A Look At U.S. And World Cannabis Laws

Photo courtesy of Dank Depot via Flickr

Where is marijuana legal, either medically, recreationally, or both – in the U.S. and worldwide?

Cannabis laws: a brief history

In early America, colonists grew hemp as a primary crop, which was continuously used for rope and fabric widely throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Hemp-growers included George Washington himself, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Though marijuana plantations, medical marijuana, and hashish parlors flourished in following centuries, poison laws were strengthened in the 1900’s. The Marijuana Tax Act criminalized the drug in 1937, and the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 made possession a criminal offense with mandatory sentencing.

Medical and recreational marijuana laws today


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In recent years, things are turning around in terms of government attitude toward cannabis.

In the United States today, 23 states and DC have legalized medical marijuana, and four have decriminalized it completely on a recreational level: Washington state in 2012, Colorado in 2013, along with Oregon, Alaska, and DC in 2014.

Laws vary by state, as the map above shows, with some states (like California and New York) having laws that decriminalize possession laws —  which typically means no jail time or criminal record for a first offense, as well as legal cannabis for medical purposes.

On the city level, it’s been decriminalized in Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, and Detroit, and made legal in Portland, Maine. Cannabis is still considered illegal in the U.S. on a federal level.


On a larger scale, there are few nations that have legalized marijuana. Most recently, a law legalizing the use, sale, and even trade of cannabis in Uruguay went into place in April of 2014.

In Cambodia, marijuana is “de facto legal,” meaning despite (lax) laws, the drug is common in public use, possession, sale, and even restaurants without threat of arrest — for citizens and foreigners alike. Similarily, there are no laws against the drug in Bangladesh, where it’s consumed traditionally.

Though recreational drugs are illegal in the Netherlands, marijuana has been completely decriminalized in small portions, and despite laws against selling, continues to be sold in coffee shops with little regulation.

Despite North Korea’s strict drug laws, marijuana, apparently, is not considered among them — in fact, it’s widely tolerated and used throughout the nation, according to Business Insider.

Future of cannabis control

The hypothetical legalization of marijuana nation-wide could make America’s economy a wealth of money, within an estimated range of $10 to $100 billion per year, as pointed out by PolicyMic. This isn’t hard to believe, especially in light of Colorado exceeding $5 million in sales in its first week of legalization.

As more states (and nations) move toward the legalization of marijuana on different levels, we can expect new regulation laws to come into place as a result; for example, legal driving limits, and laws regarding how the drug will be sold, grown, and taxed.

Originally published on January 9, 2014. 

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Jennifer Markert