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Understanding Marijuana Classifications: A Brief Summary

Although marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, many states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws allowing the use of the drug for recreational and medical purposes. As of July 2015, eighteen states plus D.C. have decriminalized the possession of marijuana in small amounts for personal use.

For employers trying to navigate the murky legal waters of pot possession and use by employees, these laws pose a challenge. Cases thus far have been favorable to employers with courts siding with employers when it comes to wrongful termination lawsuits surrounding decriminalization, legalization and medical legalization. Although rulings have been favorable for employers, we continue to see new lawsuits  and must wait to see how they are decided. The legalization of medical marijuana does not affect your right to maintain a drug free workplace. Workers can still be terminated for violating a company’s drug policy, whether the drug of choice is pot, alcohol, or another legal or illegal drug. Drug screening policies already in place may not necessarily need to be adjusted or changed. Understanding the different classifications of marijuana legalization and knowing the laws in the state (or states) in which you do business are the first steps in developing an informed workplace drug policy.

Following is a brief summary of the three different classifications of marijuana:


The decriminalization of marijuana is not the same as the legalization of marijuana, though the two are often confused. Decriminalization means that criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana possession have been abolished, though are still punishable by fine. In other words, if a person is caught with a small amount of marijuana for personal use, he or she won’t be prosecuted or receive a jail sentence that will go on a criminal record. Instead, he or she may receive a ticket and a fine, much like that associated with minor traffic violations. If a person is in possession of more than the amount outlined in state law, that person can still be charged for distribution and be subject to both fines and prison and a permanent mark on a criminal record.

Medical Marijuana Legalization:

Many states have adopted medical marijuana laws that allow qualifying patients with debilitating medical conditions to use marijuana when prescribed by a doctor. State laws vary in terms of the amount prescribed, duration of treatment, and the patient’s permission to grow their own cannabis plants. Medical marijuana legalization has opened the door for the creation of medical marijuana dispensaries to supply patients with the marijuana prescribed to them.

Recreational Marijuana Legalization:

So far, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon are the only states to have legalized marijuana, as well as Washington, D.C. Legalization means that marijuana users – all who must be over the age of 21 – cannot be arrested, ticketed or convicted of a crime for smoking or ingesting marijuana, if done so within the scope of the law. Similar to laws about alcohol consumption, the scope of legal marijuana use involves age, location, and amount consumed.

Click here to find out what the marijuana laws are in your state.


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