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The Difference Between Decriminalization and Legalization of Cannabis

This guide does not constitute legal advice and is intended to be informative. For legal advice, please consult a licensed attorney.


Is cannabis legal in Louisiana? Yes—anyone with a recommendation from a licensed healthcare provider can purchase, possess, and use medical marijuana from a pharmacy. But is cannabis decriminalized in Louisiana? What does “decriminalized” mean, anyway?

Since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level (barring high-CBD, low-THC hemp products legalized by the 2018 Farm Bill), state governments take their own approaches to cannabis laws—like legalization and decriminalization. While legalization makes regulated cannabis access possible (even with restrictions, like medical use only), decriminalization only reduces the penalties for using illegal marijuana products.

Still confused? You’re not alone. In this guide, TeleLeaf’s experts are breaking down legalization, decriminalization, and other legal minutiae surrounding marijuana.

What is Legalization?

In states where marijuana has been legalized:

  • Select state residents and visitors can possess and use marijuana purchased from dispensaries or pharmacies.
  • Residents and visitors must meet certain requirements to use cannabis—like age or medical status.
  • There are still consequences for breaking laws related to intoxication or cannabis access (though these consequences vary widely by state and infraction).

As of May 2024, marijuana has been legalized in some fashion in 38 states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • 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
  • West Virginia

Cannabis has also been legalized in:

  • Washington D.C.
  • Guam
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Puerto Rico
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

However, there are two key types of legalization to remember: medical and adult use.

Medical Legalization

In states with medical legalization, access to pharmacy- or dispensary-grade cannabis is limited to patients with:

  • A specific healthcare condition
  • A recommendation from a licensed healthcare provider

In Louisiana, only one of these criteria applies: any healthcare provider can recommend medical cannabis for any condition that they think could be treated with it.

In most other states with medical marijuana legalization, patients must be diagnosed with specific health conditions to qualify for a medical cannabis recommendation, and these lists of conditions vary by state.

Even if medical cannabis is legal in your state and you get a medical marijuana card, keep in mind that your state likely still imposes restrictions like:

  • Possession limits
  • Prohibited types of products
  • Restricted access to firearms
  • Limited access for felons, probationers, and parolees

In short, medical cannabis is an evolving legal issue in numerous states. Before starting treatment, talk with a cannabis expert in your state to learn more.

Adult Use Legalization

Adult use marijuana—widely known as recreational marijuana—is legal in 24 states as of May 2024:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington

In these states, it’s legal for anyone over the age of 21 to purchase marijuana from a dispensary. Thus, medical marijuana is also legal in these states: since anyone of age can use cannabis, patients are welcome to use it as a healing tool if they choose to do so.

However, some adult use states still administer medical cannabis programs and maintain medical-only dispensaries. Why?

  • Consulting medical professionals is recommended – Even in states with adult use legalization, experts recommend that patients meet with healthcare providers to discuss cannabis treatment. States’ medical cannabis programs can connect patients with prospective providers.
  • Some states separate medical and recreational dispensaries – Some states maintain medical-only dispensaries even if adult use marijuana has been legalized there as medical patients sometimes have access to different products.
  • Taxes and fees are often different for medical patients – In some states, medical marijuana is subject to lower taxes, fewer fees, or both. So, patients can secure lower product costs by taking the extra steps to apply for a medical card.

What is Decriminalization?

While legalization allows access to medical marijuana, decriminalization reduces or removes punishments for breaking cannabis laws.

Cannabis is currently decriminalized in the following states:

  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota

You’ll notice that some of these states (including Louisiana) have also legalized cannabis in some fashion. This means that, even if you’re caught with cannabis and you don’t have a medical card, there are fewer legal consequences than there would have been pre-decriminalization.

So, decriminalization doesn’t increase access to marijuana, but it does grant leniency to people caught breaking the law. It’s often an important step toward legalization: in both North Carolina and Nebraska, for instance, marijuana remains illegal despite being decriminalized.

Other Legal Marijuana Minutiae

What else should prospective patients know before trying marijuana for nerve pain or another medical issue? Let’s cover some additional legal considerations.

Employment Laws

Even if medical or recreational marijuana is legal in your state, employers can still administer drug tests in some states—this is especially true for government jobs.

You might also face employment concerns if you work in specific industries like:

  • Law enforcement
  • Emergency response
  • Healthcare
  • Child care
  • Education
  • Elder care

Before applying for a medical card (or applying for a new job if you already have a medical card), read your employer’s policies and your state laws carefully; even if you can legally access marijuana in your state, it could impact your job security.

Underage Users

Can you get a medical card for depression if you’re under 18? In some states, yes—but certainly not all.

Even in states with legalization and decriminalization, penalties for underage persons breaking marijuana laws can be severe; many states still take underage cannabis use very seriously, and getting caught underage can have significant legal ramifications.

If you’re under 21 and considering using medical marijuana, consider:

  • Talking to a cannabis-informed healthcare provider – A licensed provider in your state is an expert on local laws. If you’re a good fit for cannabis treatment and it’s legal to treat you, they might consider recommending medical cannabis even if you’re underage.
  • Consulting with your loved ones – If you’re under 18 and still living with a parent or guardian, you may need their permission to apply for a medical marijuana card in your state.
  • Retaining an attorney – If you have a significant medical need for cannabis and you’re under 21, consider meeting with an attorney to discuss your options. Even if you can legally access medical marijuana, you may face additional scrutiny.

Driving Under the Influence

Even if you’re legally authorized to use cannabis for anxiety (or if adult use marijuana is legal in your state), driving under the influence of any intoxicating substance is still illegal—cannabis included.

While you won’t have to worry about this if you choose CBD-only products (because CBD isn’t psychoactive), you should never drive under the influence of THC. If you need to travel while under the influence, consider:

  • Calling a cab – Services like Uber and Lyft are highly accessible—and they’re much cheaper than a DUI charge.
  • Calling a friend – The most proactive approach is to organize a ride in advance if you know you’ll need one.
  • Walking – If you feel safe doing so, consider walking to your destination instead of driving. However, we recommend walking with a buddy, especially if you’re new to cannabis.

TeleLeaf: Get Your Medical Card from a Supportive Network

Legalization vs. decriminalization of marijuana can be a complex subject. When in doubt about your state’s laws, contact a medical marijuana healthcare provider or an attorney to get a crystal-clear picture of your local regulations.

When it’s time to consult with the medical pros and get your medical card, turn to TeleLeaf: the best online medical marijuana card service on the market today. TeleLeaf’s provider network is accessible, affordable, fast, and open-minded—we’re here to connect you with the plant-based, all-natural care you deserve.

Ready to take your first steps? Reach out to our providers and start healing with medical cannabis today.


Sources:

Louisiana Department of Health. Medical Marijuana Regulation.
https://ldh.la.gov/page/medical-marijuana

The Brookings Institution. The Farm Bill, Hemp Legalization, and the Status of CBD: An Explainer.
https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-farm-bill-hemp-and-cbd-explainer/

ACLU of Washington. The Difference Between the Decriminalization and Legalization of Substances.
https://www.aclu-wa.org/story/difference-between-decriminalization-and-legalization-substances%C2%A0

The Dispensary. Medical vs. Recreational Marijuana in Colorado.
https://thedispensary.com/medical-vs-recreational-marijuana-in-colorado/

Cornell Law School. Decriminalization.
https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/decriminalization

NOLO. Louisiana’s OWI/DWI Laws and Penalties.
https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/louisiana-dui-dwi-33652.html

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