California Medical Marijuana: About and Laws

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From Hollywood to Silicon Valley to wine country, California is many things to many people. But regardless of whether you prefer Tinsel Town, tech or tempranillo, you can't deny that California is absolutely a state of many firsts. The first personal computer? That's California. The first McDonald's hamburger? That's California, too. And let's not forget that the West Coast is also the birthplace of the martini, the skateboard, the video arcade game and the Barbie doll.

In 1996, the great Golden State added another first to a list as long as the state itself: It became the first state in the Union to legalize medical marijuana, kicking off a long history of legislative victories that would eventually legalize both medical and recreational pot in 2018. In California, medical marijuana combined with recreational cannabis are expected to reach sales of $5.1 billion in 2019, according to the research firm BDS Analytics. By 2021, that figure could hit $24.5 billion.

A History of California Medical Marijuana

Across the U.S., the use of marijuana runs a whole spectrum of legality based on state laws. The most stringent states have no marijuana access laws; others allow access to cannabidiol (CBD) and other low-THC products; others have comprehensive medical marijuana laws in place; and a handful – like Oregon, Colorado and Nevada – have regulated laws for the adult recreational and medical use of marijuana. California falls under the latter category, but it was a long road to get there and, as of 2018, the laws are still evolving.

For something to be legalized, it must first be outlawed. In 1913, cannabis was added to California's Poison and Pharmacy Act of 1907, placing it on the list of banned drugs. Ironically, this makes California the first state to legally prohibit marijuana (it wasn't until 1937 that the Marihuana Tax Act made marijuana illegal to possess or transfer under United States federal law).

In 1972, California had its first brush with legalization. Proposition 19 sought to decriminalize medical and recreational marijuana, but failed to pass. As a footnote, though, Prop 19 made California the first state to attempt to legalize weed. Throughout the 1970s, California would successfully and substantially soften criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

Twenty years later, in 1992, the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco officially recognized marijuana for medical use and made the enforcement of marijuana laws the city's lowest priority. In '96, California voters successfully passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized marijuana's usage and sale for medical purposes, provided that eligible patients had a written or oral recommendation from their physician. This law confusingly conflicted with federal law, but in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that California was able to eliminate criminal penalties on medical marijuana regardless of federal law.

From the late 1990s through 2010, various measures introduced state-funded research into medical marijuana's potential applications, including funding the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California in San Diego. In 2016, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act marked a breakthrough; its Proposition 64 legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana. Following the act's approval and that of the Medicinal and Adult Use of Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA) of 2017, marijuana became officially legal across the state of California on January 1st, 2018.

Rules Under MAUCRSA

Consisting of the bills Senate Bill 94 and Assembly Bill 133 (and modifying the existing Prop 64), the Medicinal and Adult Use of Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act establishes sweeping legislation that covers both medical and adult-use recreational marijuana – it's these laws that widely colored the regulations that went into effect in 2018, especially in terms of legal licensing for the sale of cannabis. MAUCRSA requires that anyone engaged in commercial cannabis activity have a state-issued license.

Under MAUCRSA, the California State Department of Food and Agriculture, the Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Cannabis Control create regulations and issue licenses to medical marijuana collectives, also known as dispensaries, as well as to distributors, cannabis testing labs and microbusinesses. Once the Bureau begins licensing on January 9th of 2019, any non-licensed medical marijuana collectives in the state will have one year to get their official license or they become unlawful.

MAUCRSA dictates that local governments may control what sorts of commercial cannabis is allowed in their own jurisdictions – so individual cities in California have the right to make decisions regarding both medical and adult-use (or recreational) dispensaries. While cities like Santa Ana allow both types, Orange County currently does not allow either. Anaheim allows personal cultivation, and Irvine allows cannabis testing. In Los Angeles, all types of dispensaries and personal cultivation currently on the books are legal, but unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County allow neither type of dispensary.

Additional California Medical Marijuana Laws

Proposition 215 establishes much of the legal language for California medical marijuana outside of commercial licensing practices. This legislation protects chronic pain, cancer, anorexia, AIDS, arthritis, spasticity, glaucoma, migraines and "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief" as valid applications for medical cannabis. It also protects physicians, osteopaths and surgeons licensed to practice in the state of California from federal prosecution for recommending marijuana (other professionals like herbalists and chiropractors are not covered by Prop 215, though). California physicians must "recommend" marijuana, as federal law still prohibits the medical prescription of cannabis, which it deems a Schedule I drug.

While non-medical, personal growers are limited to six marijuana plants in the state of California, Proposition 215 ensures that patients – defined as those who have a recommendation from their physician – or a patient's primary medical caregiver are lawfully allowed to grow however much cannabis is needed to meet personal medical needs. Collective gardens maintained by up to five patients in conjunction are legal but subject to state and local control. In a court of law, however, it is possible for local ordinances to take precedence over this state law. As of 2018, there are no possession limits for patients of medical marijuana, as long as the amount possessed is consistent with the patient's needs.

Proposition 64 provides plenty of useful legal definitions for Californians. Chief among them, "marijuana" is defined in Section 11018 as "all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of the plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant, its seeds or resin."

Read More: California Marijuana Laws: An Overview

Requirements to Get a Medical Card in California

As of 2018, the legislation detailed by Proposition 215 does not require those who use medical marijuana to have a license or medical card to use cannabis. Having a state ID card – formally known as a medical marijuana identification card – may provide extra protection against arrest (allowing for the cultivation of marijuana exceeding recreational limits), and also exempts card-holders from paying sales tax in legal dispensaries. Patients under the age of 21 need a physician's recommendation to purchase medical marijuana, and patients with medical marijuana cards often have access to more potent products at licensed medical dispensaries.

Californians are free to apply for the strictly voluntary medical marijuana identification card program, available at public health departments across most counties in the state, as well as at the Patients ID Center in Oakland and from some physicians in the state. These cards come with an annual fee of $100, or a reduced fee of $50 for recipients of Medi-Cal healthcare benefits. According to the journal "Drug and Alcohol Review," about 1,078,795 Californians are registered medical marijuana patients.

California medical cards for non-residents are a bit of a gray area. Medical marijuana identification cards are for state residents only, but physician recommendations may be another matter. It could be argued that Proposition 215 does not take California residency into account, simply applying to anyone with a recommendation from a California physician, but as of 2018, this argument hasn't been tested by any in-court precedent. Regardless, out-of-state visitors don't need a medical card to purchase marijuana at a state-licensed, adult-use dispensary – as long as you have a government-issued ID confirming that you're 21 years of age or older, you're legally good to go.

Marijuana Prosecution

As California medical marijuana laws continue to grow and evolve, even by-the-book patients may be subject to arrest if state or local law enforcement agencies find their physician's recommendations dubious or the amount of personal cannabis being grown excessive. When a patient is charged, it falls to the courts to judge his medical claims. The precedent established by the State Supreme Court decision in the case of People vs. Mower may work in the patient's favor, though, as the court determined that marijuana patients had the same rights to cannabis as to any other legally prescribed drug.

While the federal U.S. Controlled Substances Act still defines possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor and cultivation as a felony, federal law enforcement agencies have not pursued medical patients in California, except in cases of marijuana possession on federal park or forest land in the state. While President Obama's Department of Justice took a hands-off policy to marijuana enforcement, the Trump administration reversed this policy in January of 2018, then abandoned its legal medical marijuana crackdown in April. This reverts federal prosecution of marijuana back to the guidelines listed in the Cole memorandum (formally known as Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement). The Cole memo prioritizes enforcement against drug cartels and widespread distribution, especially to minors and in cases where firearms are involved. The federal government may prosecute anything marijuana-related except for activities protected by state laws.

Under California law established in Senate Bill 420, prisoners, parolees and probationers are all entitled to use medical marijuana (but cannabis is commonly not allowed in county jails and state prisons). According to the 2008 California Supreme Court case Ross v. RagingWire, employers do have the right to request drug tests and fire employees based on the results of those tests, regardless of whether or not an employee's cannabis use is medical. The decision to excuse employees based on a physician's recommendation currently falls to employers.

Recreational Marijuana Usage

California isn't just a trailblazer in terms of medical marijuana; as of 2018, any adult 21 years of age or older is legally allowed to consume cannabis in the state, just like alcohol. To purchase weed at a dispensary, you'll need a government ID confirming your age. Though some dispensaries are approved to sell only medical marijuana, cannabis products – ranging from pre-rolled joints to oils to edibles – can be purchased from any dispensary licensed by the state for recreational sale. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control's website maintains an updated list of state-licensed dispensaries that's always free to access, but late-night cannabis enthusiasts beware – by state law, all dispensaries must close no later than 10 p.m. Once you've got your recreational pot in-hand, it's still illegal to smoke or ingest cannabis in public (though some businesses may make exceptions under Section 26200 of the Business and Professions Code, provided smoking or ingestion is not detectable by others) or while operating a vehicle. Interestingly, "open-container" laws for vehicle passengers apply to recreational marijuana users, too.

Unlike medical marijuana patients, there are limits for possession in the recreational-use world. In California, adults 21 and older may possess up to 1 ounce (or 28.5 grams) of marijuana or up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis products at one time. Adults who exceed these limits are subject to up to six months of county jail time and fines of up to $500.

If you're curious about the legality of cannabis transactions outside of state-licensed dispensaries, California law makes it clear: You can't sell marijuana without a license (even to your friends or family), but you're lawfully able to gift it to someone for free. Unlawful sales can hit offenders with up to six months of jail time and fines of up to $500 – not to mention civil penalties of up to three times the amount of the sales license fee, which increases with each violation – so it's best to share and share alike.


  • As an emerging legislation, medical marijuana laws in California are rapidly evolving, and – despite sweeping legality in the medical field – still contain some gray areas.