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California Marijuana Law Breakdown

California’s marijuana laws are relatively liberal but complicated. Medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, and recreational cannabis was decriminalized in the 1970s. But non-medical cultivation, transport, and sale are crimes. Paraphernalia sales are illegal, as are possession, manufacture, or sale of hash and other concentrates.



Cannabis is easy to find and buy in California, including the medical market, which has long provided marijuana to patients who are not really patients. That changed somewhat with the new regulations.


California legalized medical cannabis in 1996 by way of a public referendum. It was the first such vote in the United States and opened the state up to a strong culture of marijuana use. But the rules have always been vague.

The law covers a wide range of medical ailments, and patients with these illnesses may obtain a doctor’s recommendation and buy marijuana legally. However, many communities have imposed outright bans on cultivation and dispensaries.


Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for recreation is a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine. Any possession that does not meet the standards of decriminalization is treated as a crime.

Possessing of up to an ounce of cannabis on school property by an adult over age 18 is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of up to an ounce by a minor is likewise a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to 10 days in a juvenile detention facility and a $250 fine.

It is also a misdemeanor to possess more than an ounce of marijuana, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $500 fine. If a subject possesses any amount with intent to distribute, felony charges apply, and the penalty ranges from 16 months to three years in prison.


A penalty of no more than $100 in fines applies when up to an ounce of marijuana is transferred to another person as a gift. Otherwise, sale and delivery are treated as felonies and are subject to a penalty of between two and four years in prison.

It is also a felony to give cannabis to a minor between 14 and 17 years old where the giver is at least 18 years old; the penalty is between three and five years in prison. A gift to a child under 14 carries a sentence of between three and seven years in prison. Selling any amount of marijuana to a minor under age 18 comes with the same penalties.


It is legal to grow marijuana plants for medical use, but cultivation for any other reason is a felony subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 16 months in prison and a maximum of three years.


Hashish, hash oil, and other marijuana concentrates are banned for non-medical use, and the punishment for possession is up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. Manufacture, meanwhile, carries a minimum of 16 months in prison and a maximum of three years, along with $500 in fines. If concentrates are made using chemicals, the punishment is between three and seven years in prison, plus up to $50,000 in fines.


It is legal to possess marijuana paraphernalia in California, but selling these items, delivering them, possessing them with intent to sell them, or manufacturing them with intent are considered crimes. Such an offense is a misdemeanor punishable by between 15 days and six months in jail, as well as a fine of $500.

Paraphernalia offenses involving minors who are at least three years younger than the offenders are treated as misdemeanors. The top penalty is one year in jail and $1,000 in fines.


Using a minor to sell or transport marijuana is a felony punishable by three to seven years in prison. Inducing a minor to use cannabis is also a felony, with a penalty of between three and seven years in prison.

A fine of $150 applies to offenders who break the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, a state law that classifies and prohibits certain controlled drugs. It is a misdemeanor to loiter in public with intent to break this law and is punishable by suspension of driving privileges.



California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act on Nov. 6, 1996, making the state the first in the nation to legalize medical use of cannabis. The law passed with 56 percent support. It removed criminal penalties for possession, use, and cultivation of marijuana by patients who have “a written and oral recommendation” from a licensed medical doctor.

Qualifying conditions: Anorexia, Arthritis, Cachexia, Cancer, Chronic Pain, HIV/AIDS, Glaucoma, Migraine, Persistent Muscle Spasms, Severe Nausea, Seizures, and any other debilitating illness where medical use of cannabis is “deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician”

Patient possession limits: No possession limits under the Compassionate Use Act

Home cultivation: Allowed, but there are no specified cultivation limits

State licenses for dispensaries: No state-level licensing, but some cities regulate dispensaries at the local level

Caregivers: Yes. A primary caregiver consistently assumes responsibility for the health, housing, or safety of a legitimate patient. Caregivers must be at least 18 years old unless the caregiver is a parent of a patient.

Reciprocity: No



Contact information: For more information on California’s medical marijuana law, contact:

California NORML
2261 Market Street #278A
San Francisco, CA 94144
(415) 563-5858

For detailed information on medical marijuana guidelines at the county or municipal level, click here.

For a list of California physicians who recommend medical cannabis, click here.

For a list of medical cannabis providers in California, click here.

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