Murder, rape, and burglary — acts of life-destroying violence that occur countless times every day — are generally not federal crimes in the United States, but possessing marijuana is.
Medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996, with Alaska and Nevada following two years later. States began decriminalizing cannabis for recreational use much later, in 2012, mostly through ballot measures, with California, Alaska, and Nevada not doing so before 2014 and 2016. Vermont was the first state to legalize recreational cannabis use through the legislature, in 2018.
The trend towards legalizing marijuana has continued, with city and state governments rolling out more laws legalizing the use of medical or recreational marijuana by residents in their jurisdictions every year. As of the beginning of 2023, a majority of Americans had access to legal marijuana. (By the way, this state consumes the most weed: ranking use by state.)
And yet, there are still millions of U.S. residents living in areas where police regularly dole out harsh penalties for possessing marijuana, including felony charges in five states — Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Serious offenders in Kentucky may be charged with 20 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. In total, it is legal and normal to go to prison for possessing less than 1 ounce of cannabis in 19 states.
Police disproportionately target Black residents and communities even in areas where weed is legal, and this treatment is especially lopsided in the 19 states on this list. An analysis of arrests of Black and white residents for weed possession in 2018 by the American Civil Liberties Union found that Black Americans are anywhere from 2.4 times (Arkansas) to 9.4 times (Kentucky) more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession. Reported marijuana usage rates are equal between Black and white residents of all of these states. (These are the worst states for Black Americans: every state ranked.)
To identify the 19 states where you can go to prison for having weed, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed max penalties, possession limits, medical marijuana laws, and racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests from “2022 Behind the Times: The 19 States Where a Joint Can Still Land You in Jail,” a report published by policy reform organization the Marijuana Policy Project, which has received funding primarily from Peter Benjamin Lewis and now his family. Lewis was an American businessman who was the chairman of Progressive Insurance Company.
We reviewed and updated the maximum penalty and medical marijuana laws in July 2023. Marijuana use among state residents aged 12 and up in the past month in 2021 came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Click here to see 19 states where you can go to prison for having weed.
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