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Medical Marijuana Laws

Medical marijuana is the legal use of marijuana, also known as cannabis, for medical purposes. Numerous states now allow the usage of marijuana as a treatment method for patients with certain medical conditions. These states have created their own laws and regulations regarding the usage, possession, growth, and distribution within state lines.

Because medical marijuana is still a fairly recent development, the laws controlling its use are constantly evolving. In order to avoid criminal charges and stay within your state's requirements, it is helpful to have a general understanding of how medical marijuana laws work in our country.


Legally Qualifying Medical Conditions

In order to legally use medical marijuana, you must have a qualifying condition diagnosed and documented by a healthcare professional.

The law typically allows cannabis for medicinal use for treating certain conditions where marijuana can alleviate symptoms and the side effects of treatment. Other states restrict its use to debilitating diseases or disorders, such as:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease
  • Anorexia
  • Arthritis
  • Cachexia
  • Cancer
  • Crohn's disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Glaucoma
  • HIV or AIDS
  • Migraines
  • Muscle spasms
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Nerve or spinal cord damage
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Seizures
  • Severe nausea

Many states' lists of qualifying conditions may not include every debilitating condition, but there may be a legal process in place to remedy any oversights. In these cases, you or your physician may submit a petition to demonstrate that medical marijuana is an appropriate treatment option.

Legal Requirements for Medical Marijuana Use

For most states that permit medical marijuana, there are additional legal requirements that you must meet to obtain it. For your state's specific requirements, you can learn more on our list of medical marijuana laws by state or by taking a peek at your state government's official website.

Residency Requirements

For the most part, a patient must reside within the state where they wish to receive medical marijuana. Your state may require specific documentation to prove you are a resident when starting this process, such as a driver's license or other proof of address.

Medical Documentation

Same as obtaining any other medication from a pharmacy, the majority of states require a prescription or written statement from a prescriber in order to obtain medical marijuana. Other states require patients to receive a written statement, certification, or verbal authorization from a prescriber.

Register with the State Government

Next, most states require the patient to register with a state government department or agency. Most states keep a confidential state registry in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

Medical Marijuana Cards

From there, a number of states issue patients a medical marijuana card. This card may be required to purchase from a medicinal marijuana dispensary or prove to law enforcement that you are legally permitted to consume medical marijuana. Like other prescriptions, your card will have an expiration date, and you will have to renew it.

The Role of Medical Providers

Each state defines what types of providers may prescribe this treatment and the type of required documentation, like a prescription or other authorization. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be able to receive a prescription for medical marijuana from a doctor, physician's assistant, nurse practitioner, or a natural or holistic practitioner.

Prescriptions or other written certification is common, but there are a few states that permit verbal authorization from a prescriber.

Sometimes, a prescriber may be required to register with the state to prescribe medical marijuana. Health care providers may also need to sign forms on behalf of their patients for them to receive a medical marijuana card and be able to purchase from medical dispensaries.

Restrictions for Caregivers and Dispensaries

Just as patients and prescribers have requirements, so do the people responsible for distributing medical marijuana. The person who administers medical marijuana to a patient is referred to in statutes as a "caregiver" or "primary caregiver." Many states also have legal requirements in place for caregivers, since they often purchase and administer marijuana for their patients.

Most states have age limits on who can be a caregiver. Many states require a caregiver to be at least 21 years old, while other states set the age limit at 18 years old. Some states even require caregivers to register with the state. Additionally, many states mandate that caregivers cannot be under the influence of marijuana or other substances while administering it.

In the marijuana industry, other people involved in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana are also considered caregivers. Accordingly, states impose specific regulations on individual growers and dispensary owners.

Violations of Medical Marijuana Law

Although legal in some form in over half of the United States, marijuana is still a controlled substance under federal law, which can lead to some legal complications. Additionally, failing to comply with medical marijuana regulations in your own state may lead to a criminal charge.

Despite the differences in how individual states regulate medical marijuana, there are a number of general ways that it may be illegal to use, possess, cultivate, or distribute medical marijuana under state and federal laws, such as:

Since each state has different laws controlling medical marijuana, it is important to be aware of not only the laws in your state but also any other states where you may travel. If the offense you are charged with involves bringing marijuana across state lines, you may be dealing with a federal crime, as it still is a criminalized controlled substance under federal law.

Marijuana and Criminal Defense Cases

If you have been charged with a criminal offense relating to medical marijuana, the type of charges you may find yourself facing will largely depend on the facts and circumstances of your situation. Your location can also play a critical role in determining whether it is a violation, misdemeanor, or felony offense.

Any drug offense, even misuse of medical marijuana, can come with serious penalties and can involve hefty fines. Because this is an evolving area of the law, it can be difficult to navigate on your own, so you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation.

Defense attorneys often have experience dealing with drug offenses and are familiar with working in the criminal justice system. It may be helpful to have an advocate in court with you who understands how the system works and how to protect your rights and best interests.