California Marijuana Laws: An Overview

Marijuana Grow-Op
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In California, first with the passage of Proposition 215 and, more recently, Proposition 64, it is legal to use and grow marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. Yet, while both medical and recreational marijuana is now legal under state law, there are rules regarding usage and cultivation that people must still abide by. Also, some cities and counties have overridden state laws by enacting local ordinances that restrict or ban marijuana cultivation.

Legalization of Medical Marijuana in California

In 1996, the majority of California's voters passed Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act. Proposition 215 legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Under the proposition, patients suffering from certain conditions and their caregivers can possess and grow marijuana if a physician has attested that marijuana use is appropriate for the patient.

In response to the proposition's passage, California enacted the Medical Marijuana Program Act. MMPA established a medical marijuana identification card system. With a medical marijuana identification card, a patient and/or his caregiver can possess, grow and buy marijuana from licensed dispensaries.

Medical Marijuana Identification Cards

County programs process medical marijuana identification card applications. In order to get one, a person must submit to her county program: an application form, proof of identity and residency, and written documentation from her doctor stating that she has a serious medical condition and that marijuana use is appropriate for that medical condition.

A patient can also apply for her primary caregiver to get a primary caregiver medical marijuana identification card so long as she accompanies her primary caregiver to the program office. Patients who are under 18 years of age must have parental consent get an identification card.

The fee for a card varies by county, with a maximum of $100 per card. This means that if a patient applies for both the patient and primary caregiver medical marijuana identification cards, the application fee may be a maximum of $200. The cardholder's photo, of either the patient or the primary caregiver, depending on which card is requested, is printed on the card.

Medical Conditions for Getting Medical Marijuana

The doctor can provide her own written documentation or use the state's standard form. On the state's form, Written Documentation of Patient's Medical Records, the doctor provides her name, contact information and medical license number. She then confirms with her signature that the applicant is under her care, is diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition and that marijuana use is appropriate in light of the condition. Some of the qualifying medical conditions are:

  • AIDS.
  • Anorexia.
  • Arthritis.
  • Cachexia (also called wasting syndrome).
  • Cancer.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Glaucoma.
  • Migraine.
  • Persistent muscle spasms.
  • Seizures.
  • Severe nausea.

There is also a catchall qualification for "any other chronic or persistent medical symptom that either substantially limits a person's ability to conduct one or more of major life activities as defined in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990" and for symptoms that if not alleviated, may cause serious harm to the person's safety, physical or mental health.

Growing and Buying Marijuana for Medical Purposes

Under Proposition 215, once they have received their medical marijuana identification cards, patients and their caregivers can grow however much marijuana is required for the patient's medical needs. However, California's courts have ruled that local ordinances enacted by counties and cities can override the state law.

This means that there may be a local ordinance that restricts or even outright bans the cultivation of marijuana, even by patients and their caregivers for medical purposes, within city or county lines. Patients and their caregivers are advised to check their local ordinances before cultivating marijuana.

For buying marijuana, patients and their caregivers with medical marijuana identification cards don't have to pay sales tax when purchasing items from licensed dispensaries.

Legalization of Recreational Marijuana in California

In 2016, the majority of California's voters passed Proposition 64, known as the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Proposition 64 legalized the possession and use of marijuana, up to one ounce, by adults aged 21 years or older for recreational purposes.

The act did not completely decriminalize recreational marijuana use. Along with the age and marijuana amount restriction, recreational use of marijuana in a public place, such as a park, is still illegal. Similar to driving while under the influence of alcohol, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal and people suspected of doing so can be subjected to a field sobriety test by law enforcement. Smoking and possessing marijuana is also illegal in certain places, including on and near school, day care center and youth center grounds.

In terms of cultivation, a person can grow up to six plants within her personal home so long as the area is not visible to the public and is locked. Some cities and counties also have local ordinances that further regulate recreational marijuana cultivation.

Read More: California Marijuana Laws: Possession and Age Restrictions

Local Laws Regarding Marijuana

Some cities and counties have enacted local ordinances that prohibit and/or regulate marijuana dispensaries and cultivation. San Joaquin County's Ordinance 4515, for example, allows personal marijuana cultivation only within the walls of a private residence or an accessory structure to a private residence. The area cannot be bigger than 100 square feet and not visible to the public. In terms of commercial marijuana, storefront retail marijuana businesses are not allowed but non-storefront retail, or delivery businesses, are allowed.

Marijuana businesses must submit to San Joaquin County: a County Cannabis License, a Use Permit or Special Purpose Plan, a Development Agreement and a California Annual State License.

Federal Law on Marijuana

Marijuana, whether used for medical and recreational purposes, is still considered a controlled substance under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act and thus illegal under federal law. Possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor while cultivation of marijuana is a felony. Despite the passage of propositions 215 and 64 in California, federal law supersedes state law.

This means that marijuana can still be subject to seizure while on federal forest or park land in California. In some instances, those who use and grow marijuana may even lose federal benefits, such as food benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and housing granted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

California Marijuana Industry Regulations

With the passage of Proposition 64, California's legislature enacted the “Medical and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act” (MAUCRSA) to provide a regulatory system for both the recreational and medical marijuana industries. All of the rules regarding the growth and sale of marijuana, both recreational and medical, can now be found in MAUCRSA.

This law also sets forth the license requirements and procedures for commercial cultivators, manufacturers, retailers, dispensaries, distributors and testing companies.


  • Patients and their caregivers who have a medical marijuana identification card may be able to grow more marijuana than those who do not. Recreational use of marijuana is also restricted to those 21 years of age or older, while medical marijuana patients may be under 21 or, with parental consent, 18 years of age.

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