neon sign with marijuana leaf

After Election Day, 21 states now have legalized the purchase and possession of cannabis for recreational use.
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On Election Day, voters in five states addressed whether recreational marijuana should be legal in their state, as it already was in 19 other states and Washington, DC. By Wednesday morning, adult-use cannabis was approved in Maryland and Missouri but failed to clear in Arkansas and North and South Dakota. 

Though mixed, the results still add pressure on Congress to legalize marijuana on the federal level.

“These votes will provide a boost to cannabis reformers in DC, which makes significant federal reform a real possibility this year,” Brian Vicente, a cannabis activist who helped make Colorado the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, said in a statement shared with CNET.  

The Election Day results “move the country closer to an important psychological and policy milestone,” Vicente added, “having a majority of states with legal cannabis.” 

In October, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order pardoning all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.

“There are thousands of people who were previously convicted of simple possession who may be denied employment, housing or educational opportunities as a result,” Biden said in a statement encouraging governors to make similar moves.

Here’s what to know about marijuana legalization in the US, including which states have passed laws, what’s happening on the federal level and how Americans feel about legalizing pot. 

For more on marijuana, find out about the cannabis company sued for not making customers high enough and check out the hottest new pot gadgets.

What states have legalized recreational marijuana?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. 

Recreational cannabis is also legal in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

A referendum on recreational marijuana in Oklahoma was certified too late to appear on the November ballot, but it will be the subject of a special election in March 2023.

What states have legalized medical marijuana?

As of October 2022, 37 states have legalized the medical use of cannabis to varying degrees: Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

In addition, all states with adult-use laws — as well as the District of Columbia and the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands — have legalized medical marijuana.

Each jurisdiction has its own criteria regarding what conditions cannabis can be prescribed for, the process for issuing medical marijuana licenses and the amount that can be sold.

What does federal law say about marijuana?

Despite the president’s order, the Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and LSD, while cocaine is listed as a Schedule II drug.

In 2013, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to defer to state authorities in jurisdictions that had legalized marijuana, “based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system.”

Known as the Cole Memo, this guidance was rescinded in 2018 by Jeff Sessions, attorney general under President Donald Trump. Marijuana legalization advocates have encouraged Biden to direct current Attorney General Merrick Garland to reinstate the Cole Memo.

How do Americans feel about legalizing weed?

According to a 2021 Pew Research poll, 91% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized to some degree — 31% for medical use only and 60% for both medical and recreational use. (Only 8% of respondents said marijuana should not be legal at all.)

More Americans smoke pot than cigarettes, according to an August 2022 Gallup poll: The percentage of Americans who say they smoke marijuana has reached 16%. Tobacco smokers, meanwhile, represent only 11% of US adults, a drop from 16% in 2021 and a quarter of the 43% who smoked in 1972.

Gallup’s research also found that nearly half (46%) of American adults say they’ve tried marijuana, despite it being registered as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government.

Biden on legalizing marijuana

Biden press conferenceBiden press conference

While campaigning for president, Joe Biden said he supported leaving regulation of recreational marijuana to individual states.

Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/CNET

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Biden promised to “decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.” 

According to his campaign website, if elected president, Biden would “support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”

Though the president can’t repeal federal marijuana laws on his own, in October 2022 Biden granted a pardon to anyone with a federal conviction for simple marijuana possession. He also directed the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review whether marijuana should remain listed as a Schedule I substance.

What’s the difference between legalization and decriminalization?

Many states that have legalized marijuana initially decriminalized possession of a small amount. Broadly speaking, cannabis “legalization” means passing laws that allow the buying, selling and possession of marijuana, usually with restrictions on the age of the consumer and the amount purchased.

Decriminalization, on the other hand, typically means that violating certain marijuana laws can still result in fines or other penalties but not criminal charges or jail time. 

In North Carolina, possession of half an ounce of marijuana or less is considered a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a $200 fine, “but any sentence of imprisonment imposed must be suspended.”

In Nebraska, the first-offense possession of an ounce or less is punishable by a maximum fine of $300 and a possible requirement to complete a drug education course. A second conviction is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500. Subsequent convictions are also misdemeanors, punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and up to seven days in jail.

Marijuana legalization efforts in Congress

As more states legalize medical and recreational marijuana, an increasing number of lawmakers want to square up federal laws so they don’t conflict with state regulations. A number of bills introduced in both the House and Senate would address various aspects of marijuana legalization, from the criminal to the financial.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act
Now with the Senate, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, or CAOA, would end the federal ban on cannabis and give state-compliant cannabis businesses access to financial services like bank accounts, business loans and credit card transactions.

The 296-page bill also addresses a federally mandated impaired-driving standard, cannabis industry workers’ rights, and penalties for possessing or distributing large amounts of cannabis without a permit, Marijuana Moment reported.

 “Hundreds of millions of Americans live in states that have legalized cannabis in some form while it remains illegal at the federal level,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with fellow Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Cory Booker, wrote in a February letter calling for input from fellow lawmakers.

That discrepancy “breeds confusion and uncertainty,” they said — and raises numerous questions in areas from small-business growth to public safety. Advocates of legalization hope the bill will get a vote this session, while the Democrats still hold the Senate.

“McConnell would never bring these things to the floor,” Schumer said last year, referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to Politico. “We’ll move forward and try to get this done as soon as we possibly can.


A measure abolishing federal criminal penalties for those growing, possessing or distributing cannabis passed the House in April 2022.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The MORE Act
A separate bill, the Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment Expungement Act, passed the House in April. It would also abolish federal criminal penalties for those growing, possessing or distributing cannabis and expunge nonviolent cannabis convictions.

The MORE Act institutes a tax on cannabis to help communities impacted by decades of policing focused on nonviolent crimes related to marijuana use. The money would pay for programs such as job training, legal aid and youth mentoring.

It wouldn’t require states to legalize cannabis, however. Regulation would be left up to state lawmakers.

The MORE Act originally passed the House in December 2020 — the first time either chamber approved repealing federal marijuana prohibition — but a matching bill in the Senate wasn’t taken up for consideration.

Other cannabis legislation
On Feb. 4, 2022, the House passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, which would grant state-licensed marijuana businesses access to financial services. On Oct. 30, Schumer said the Senate was “very close” to passing the legislation.

In late March, the Senate unanimously approved the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act, which would streamline the application process for researchers who want to study the medicinal value of cannabis and related products.

“This important legislation will cut the red tape around the research process, helping get FDA-approved, marijuana-derived medications safely to patients,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and a sponsor of the bill, said in a March 24 statement. 

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