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Guide to California Marijuana Laws

Guide to California Marijuana Laws

Twenty years after California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, voters finally chose to legalize recreational marijuana as well on November 8, 2016. On that date, Proposition 64 was passed, allowing retail shops to open and adults 21 and over to buy, possess, and grow marijuana regardless of medical need. But that does not mean pot became readily available overnight.

While patients with a medical marijuana card can still purchase pot at a licensed dispensary, recreational users have some more waiting to do. They can grow it and possess it, but recreational users cannot buy marijuana legally until licensed retail stores open and that can only happen after a licensing program is fully developed and in place. Read on to learn more about when recreational marijuana stores will open in California, and the laws you need to know about cannabis in the Golden State.

How California Got Legal

Even though it took decades for recreational marijuana to be legalized in California, it remains one of the most pot-friendly states in the country. The new laws related are among the simplest and most straightforward there are, and now California’s size and stance on cutting-edge marijuana issues is expected to become a huge catalyst in getting more widespread acceptance of legalization.

The first efforts in the Golden State to legalize marijuana go all the way back to the early 1970s.

Marijuana Law Milestones
  • 1972: California voters rejected Proposition 19, which would have decriminalized marijuana possession and cultivation for people age 18 and older. The 66.5% of voters who opposed it took the position that decriminalizing it would only encourage marijuana use.
  • 1975: Senator George Moscone and attorney Leo Paoli created the California Senate Select Committee on the Control of Marijuana, with the purpose of analyzing the social and fiscal impact of marijuana prohibition.
    • The study revealed that simple marijuana possession arrests were costing the state up to $100 million every year.
    • As a result, Moscone introduced Senate Bill 95, which would make possessing an ounce or less of marijuana a traffic-like citation rather than a felony.
    • Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law in his first term.
  • 1996: Proposition 215 appeared on the voting ballot and over 55% of voters supported it. This was a historic milestone since marijuana had been outlawed in California for almost 60 years.
    • The bill stated that patients with certain medical conditions, as well as defined caregivers, were exempted from criminal laws prohibiting the possession or cultivation of marijuana.
  • 2003: Another piece of legislation – Senate Bill 420 – was signed into law and clarified which government agencies would enforce marijuana laws.
    • This bill also created a voluntary identification card system that would verify medical marijuana patients.
  • 2010: Proposition 19 again appeared on voting ballots, aiming to legalize recreational marijuana for adults aged 21 and older, but failed to pass again, with less than 47% of voters supporting it.
  • 2012: Just two years after Proposition 19 failed for a second time, the Los Angeles Times published a survey showing that 55% of California voters had come to support marijuana legalization.
  • November 8, 2016: Proposition 64 was approved by a majority of California voters, allowing adults 21 and over to grow, possess, and use recreational marijuana.
    • Medical marijuana dispensaries can apply for temporary state licenses to sell recreational marijuana, but because the licensing program is not yet finalized, over-the-counter sales are not expected until late 2017.
The Steps to Legal Sales

Following the passage of Proposition 64 on November 8, 2016, recreational marijuana was still not readily available through legal means because the infrastructure for licensing shops and for oversight of the industry was not yet in place. Here’s how things unfolded–and continue to unfold–following Prop 64’s passage.

  • November 9, 2016: Adults 21 and older are allowed to purchase, possess, and transport up to an ounce of dried marijuana flowers and ¼ ounce of cannabis concentrates. Adults 21 and older can also grow up to 6 marijuana plants indoors.
    • Outdoor cultivation of pot is subject to local restrictions, which should be in place by mid-year.
    • Criminal penalties for marijuana-related offenses that are considered non-serious, like possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana, are reduced to misdemeanors.
    • Anyone with prior marijuana-related convictions can submit a petition to the court to have their record cleared.
    • The personal information of medical marijuana patients is protected under the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act.
    • The California Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation is renamed the Bureau of Marijuana Control.
    • The Department of Food and Agriculture is given responsibility for the regulation and control of the non-medical marijuana industry.
  • January 1, 2018: The Bureau of Marijuana Control must begin issuing licenses for non-medical marijuana businesses.
  • Winter 2017/Spring 2018: As soon as licenses are issued, retail pot shops can open for business.

In the time between the passage of Proposition 64 in late 2016 and the January 1, 2018 deadline for licensing of retail shops, medical marijuana dispensaries can apply for temporary licenses to sell recreational marijuana. However, the Bureau of Marijuana Control admitted in early 2017 that they have already fallen behind in keeping up with the tens of thousands of inquiries being submitted under the new laws.

The National Context

Just how is California’s legalization of recreational marijuana seen on a federal level?

  • With the passage of Proposition 64, nearly 40 million more people are living in a state where marijuana will be regulated like alcohol instead of being treated criminally.
  • That is being viewed as the most significant accomplishment in the marijuana legalization movement since the first states legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.
  • The approval of the ballot measure in California has created the single largest market for marijuana products in the U.S., as California has the world’s sixth largest economy.
  • Those working for drug policy reform say the approval of Proposition 64 dramatically boosts the movement’s political clout on a national level and adds to the pressure on the federal government to allow each state to decide on its own regulations.
  • The confirmation of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General in February, 2017, created some anxiety among marijuana reform advocates since he can choose to uphold or rescind the U.S. Justice Department’s memo from August, 2013, suggesting that U.S. attorneys not prioritize marijuana-related convictions.
  • You can learn more about the current administration’s thoughts on state legalization in this article.

And how does it fit in with other legalization movements around the country?

  • With the passing of Proposition 64, California joins Oregon, Washington, and Nevada in legalization on the west coast–meaning there are now four states sharing borders that have legalized marijuana.
    • This is an interesting conundrum since it is illegal to transport cannabis across state lines, even between states that have legalized it.  Everyone involved in the legalization movement will be watching closely to see how the situation is managed by authorities
  • California–along with Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada–is part of a third wave of states to legalize recreational marijuana. More and more states are expected to place legalization measures on the ballot in the coming elections.
  • Read all about the current status of marijuana in all 50 states over at NORML.

The Law in California

Personal Use

These are the rules:

  • Just like alcohol, marijuana can only be purchased by adults. You have to be at least 21 years old to buy products from a recreational marijuana store.
  • Any adult can purchase marijuana in California including out of state visitors, as long as they have proper ID.
  • All recreational products must be consumed in California.
  • The most you can purchase and possess at any one time is:
    • One ounce (28 grams) of “usable marijuana”
    • 1/4 ounce (8 grams) of “marijuana concentrate”
    • This goes for everyone – California residents and visitors alike
  • If you’re 21 or over, and you do not participate in the medical MJ program, you can grow up to 6 plants at home, either indoors or outside in fully enclosed and locked structures.
  • You can share or give 1 ounce or less of marijuana to another adult who is 21 or over as long as no money changes hands.
  • To learn more about California’s laws related to personal use, check out NORML.
A Word About Medical Marijuana

California was the groundbreaking state that first legalized marijuana as medicine in 1996, so the program that regulates medical MJ is something of a well-oiled machine.

  • Proposition 64 legalizing recreational marijuana had no impact on the rights of medical marijuana patients.
    • Prop 64 fully preserves the existing medical marijuana regulatory structure.
  • Medical MJ patients can still possess it, smoke it in most places where tobacco smoking is allowed, and grow up to 100 square feet of marijuana plants.
  • Patients will get their medical marijuana cards just like always.
  • Dispensaries will operate like always, but will be able to obtain licenses for recreational sales when the licensing program is ready.
  • When state licenses are rolled out and recreational shops open, all marijuana sales will be taxed at 15 percent including medical marijuana.
    • Patients who have paid for a medical MJ card can skip paying state sales tax
  • If you currently have a medical marijuana card, it’s a good idea to hang on to it since patients will still have some additional rights including:
    • The right to grow more marijuana for personal use
    • The right to purchase more MJ at one time

To learn more about medical marijuana, see our guide to Buying Medical Marijuana, as well as the Health Benefits of Marijuana.

Buying Weed

You’re 21 years old and you want to buy pot in California. Where can you get some weed? Well, here’s another conundrum.

  • It’s legal to purchase marijuana in California now for personal use, but unless you have a valid medical marijuana card, you can’t buy it until recreational stores actually open.
  • It’s a safe bet that is not going to happen until early 2018, which is the deadline for the state to start issuing retail licenses.
  • Until then, someone cultivating marijuana in their home or backyard could share the bud or give you a plant to start growing your own.
    • No money can change hands, though, since selling marijuana – even among friends – is illegal until the recreational stores open.
  • Do not think about bringing weed into California from somewhere else since transporting marijuana across state lines is still a felony.
    • This is the case even if the marijuana is being brought from an adjacent state (Oregon or Nevada) where it is also legal.

Once you’re able to buy pot in a recreational store, where can you smoke it?

  • You are not allowed to smoke or ingest marijuana in public at all in California unless you’re a medical marijuana patient.
  • Though Prop 64 will eventually allow you to consume it at licensed establishments, the safest thing to do is consume it only at home or in private residences.
  • People in California will eventually be able to host private events where marijuana is smoked.
  • Hotels and apartment buildings will eventually be able to allow consumption in hallways and lobbies if they choose.
  • Until then, you can’t smoke it or consume it:
    • On streets
    • While driving a vehicle
    • In public parks or on public transportation
    • In bars and restaurants
    • Anywhere smoking is banned
    • On federal land, which includes:
      • National parks
      • Federal courthouses or other federal buildings
      • National monuments
      • Military bases
  • Violating the rules has consequences:
    • If you’re busted smoking marijuana in public, expect a fine of up to $100
    • If you’re in a place where tobacco smoking is prohibited or near a school, expect a fine of up to $250
    • And if you’re a minor, you’ll have to complete 4 hours of a drug education program or counseling, and you’ll be doing up to 10 hours of community service
What the General Public Thinks

What is the attitude toward marijuana/legalization in California?

Even though only a slight majority of Californians approved legalization of marijuana, overall California has been and continues to be viewed as a leader on marijuana policy.

  • Today, 55% of likely voters believe marijuana should be legal
  • Since 2010, support for legalization has increased by double digits among Republicans
  • It’s still much higher among Democrats at 63% and Independents at 57%, but Republican support for legalization has increased by 10 points in recent years to 44%
  • 52% of Californians age 55 and older think that marijuana should be made legal
  • 61% of Californians age 18 to 34 continue to support legalization
  • But 47% of Californians age 35 to 45 continue to oppose legalization
  • There is solid support among college graduates and men:
    • More than half of college graduates – 60% – are in favor of making pot legal
    • 59% of men support legalization
  • Support has increased in all parts of the state except in the Central Valley where it has actually declined recently.
  • Californians in the San Francisco Bay Area continue to be the most likely to think marijuana should be legal (64% – up 8 points since 2010).

You can read more about pot-related public opinions here.

Police Enforcement

Driving High

California Vehicle Code 23152(a) specifically states that a person is guilty of DUI if he or she is driving under the influence of ANY alcoholic beverage or drug, or driving while addicted to a drug. And there is no exception for medical marijuana users.

Mandatory punishment for a marijuana DUI in California is the same as punishment for an alcohol DUI and requires brief jail time, fines, and other penalties.

So what is driving high in California?

  • There is no consensus in California about how much marijuana in the system actually impairs driving as there is in some other states like Colorado or Washington.
  • Instead, the simple “use of marijuana while driving” can qualify you for a DUI, so it’s smart to stay put if smoking or using pot.

How can an officer stop you?

  • An officer can stop you for another offense, such as speeding, an illegal turn, etc.
  • Or if they have probable cause that you are driving impaired:
    • Speeding
    • Swerving
    • Other suspicious driving activity

What happens when they stop you?

  • They will perform a field sobriety test to determine your level of impairment. The test can be:
    • Horizontal Gaze Test
      • The officer moves an object or finger side to side in front of your face
      • This detects jerking of the eyes associated with high levels of intoxication
    • Walk the Line Test
      • You’ll be asked to walk in a straight line
      • The officer will watch for lack of balance, inability to stay on a straight line, or breaks in walking
    • One Leg Stand Test
      • You will be asked to raise your foot, be still, count, and look down
      • The officer will watch for swaying, hopping, or putting your foot down
  • If you fail the sobriety test, the officer can arrest you and perform a blood or urine test to determine drug content.
    • In California, anybody driving a vehicle on the highway is deemed to have already given consent to testing of blood or urine for the purpose of determining drug content.
    • You can choose between either a blood or urine test, but you don’t have the right to have an attorney present before deciding or during the test.

Penalties for a first offense, which is a misdemeanor, can include:

  • Probation for 3-5 years
  • A fine – usually around $1,800
  • Completion of a California DUI school
  • Suspension of your driver’s license
  • Possible jail time if you have a prior record

Learn more about the laws and penalties for drugged driving in California from NORML.

Other Legal Information

Public intoxication is defined as:

  • A person under the influence of alcohol or drugs to such an extent that they
    • Are unable to exercise care for their own safety or the safety of others
    • Interfere with, obstruct, or prevent other people from using streets, sidewalks, or other public ways

Possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana or ¼ ounce of concentrates in public:

  • More than 1 ounce is a misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine
  • Less than 1 ounce if you’re under the age of 21 is a misdemeanor with up to 10 days in jail and a $250 fine

Possession with intent to distribute:

  • Any amount with intent to distribute is a misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine

Sale or delivery:

  • Any amount is a misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine
  • Any amount to someone 14-17 years old is a felony with 3-5 years in prison
  • Any amount to someone under 14 is a felony with 3-7 years in prison

Unlicensed manufacturing of hash and concentrates:

  • Up to 3 years in jail and a fine of $500

Paraphernalia – sale, delivery, possession with intent and/or manufacturer with intent to distribute:

  • A misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a fine of $500


  • More than 6 plants is a misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine

City and municipal laws:

  • Cities and counties can restrict where marijuana businesses can be located
  • Local municipalities can completely ban the sale of marijuana from their jurisdictions
  • Local municipalities are also allowed to “reasonably regulate” the growing, possession, and use of marijuana plants.

Learn more about California’s laws and penalties through NORML.

Going into Business

With initial sales expected to bring an additional $1.5 billion into California’s marijuana market – a figure that will likely grow to nearly $4 billion within a few years – Proposition 64 made the prospect of going into the marijuana business an enticing one (you can see the latest report by New Frontier Data and ArcView Market Research here). Here’s what you need to know before you dive in.


When the Bureau of Marijuana Control begins accepting applications sometime in 2017, it will be issuing a total of 19 different types of licenses for recreational marijuana businesses that run parallel to medical marijuana licenses. The general categories of licenses are:

  • Cultivation (both large and micro growers)
  • Manufacture
  • Distribution
  • Transportation
  • Laboratory Testing
  • Retail Sales

It is not yet clear whether the Bureau will limit the number and type of recreational marijuana business licenses an owner can have, but it appears that they will be allowing multiple types in any combination – cultivator, manufacturer, retailer, distributor, and/or tester. But there is a restriction already in place on issuing licenses to any very large-scale marijuana businesses through 2023 to prevent a “monopoly.”

Be aware that local governments could also require licenses and, if this is the case where you live, a state license may not be obtainable until all local licenses are in place.

How to Acquire a License

The state is not yet accepting applications for recreational marijuana licenses of any type. But if you plan to apply for one, you can begin preparing now by making sure you are in compliance with all existing regulations and that you meet the basic requirements (we outline some of these below for you or you can read more in the regulatory documents from the Office of Attorney General for California).

Who Can Apply for a License?

To apply for a recreational marijuana business license:

  • You must be a legal resident of the State of California
  • You cannot have
    • A conviction that is “substantially related” to marijuana
    • A violent felony conviction
    • A felony conviction involving fraud, drug trafficking, or selling drugs to a minor
  • You will need to already have any license the city or municipality in which you live requires

There will be a fee for submitting your application for a license and then a fee for the license itself, but the amounts have not been set yet by the Bureau.

Refusals for Licenses

The Bureau of Marijuana Control in California will be able to refuse a license to applicants. Not all of the criteria have been finalized, but some of the reasons they will refuse a license are:

  • If there will be excessive concentration in a given area (usually defined as a concentration that would be higher than anywhere else in that county)
    • Be aware that local governments will also be able to impose their own limits on concentration
  • If the person is not a California resident for a certain number of years
  • If the person applying provides false information to the Bureau
  • If the person applying has certain convictions on their record

How will recreational marijuana be taxed in California?

  • When recreational marijuana stores open for business in late 2017 or early 2018, all cannabis sales will be taxed at 15%.
  • This is in addition to routine state sales tax which averages around 8%.
  • Medical marijuana patients will pay the 15% special tax, but will be able to skip paying state sales tax.
  • Everyone will also pay any additional local taxes that may be charged by cities and counties.
  • Cultivators or growers will pay:
    • $9.25 per ounce for flowers
    • $2.75 per ounce for leaves and stems trimmed from the plant

Where will the tax dollars go?

  • 60% to youth programs
    • Substance use disorder education
    • Prevention and treatment
  • 20% to environmental cleanup and prevention of damage resulting from illegal growing of marijuana
  • 10% to programs designed to reduce DUIs
  • 10% to a grant program designed to reduce potential negative impact on public health or safety resulting from Proposition 64

Growing Pot

Proposition 64 allows adults in California to grow marijuana plant for their personal use.

  • Adults can possess and grow up to 6 plants.
  • This number of plants applies to any household, no matter how many adults live there.
  • Medical marijuana patients who already grow medical cannabis can exercise their right to grow 6 more plants for recreational use.
    • They will be able to give away the non-medical seeds as long as no money changes hands.
  • If grown outside, plants cannot be in public view and must be in a fully enclosed, secure area.
  • There are no rules about how many of the plants can be mature or flowering at any given time.
  • Property owners can ban the cultivation of marijuana on their properties – meaning your landlord can decide that plants cannot be grown on their property, i.e., in your apartment.
  • Outdoor, commercial cultivation will be regulated by local governments and subject to local restrictions which should be in place mid-2017.
    • The Department of Pesticide Regulation is being required to issue state-wide standards for the use of pesticides by growers.

To learn more about the laws related to growing marijuana in California:

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