In the Grand Canyon State, medical marijuana has been legal since the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act was passed in 2010. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there were more than 120,000 active medical marijuana cardholders as of January 2017. Being a cardholder means you have a qualifying medical condition and a doctor recommendation for marijuana as a treatment.
Despite medical marijuana being legal in Arizona for the last seven years, many people are still confused about when and how they can get into legal trouble for using this substance – especially since marijuana is still illegal according to federal law. Understanding the differences between state and federal marijuana laws can help you avoid prosecution for possessing, using, or distributing marijuana in Arizona.
At the federal level, marijuana is still a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This act places all substances into one of five schedules, with Schedule I meaning a drug has a “high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use.” As a Schedule I substance, it remains a federal offense to distribute or use marijuana, with penalties such as fines, prison time, or both.
In 2013, the Department of Justice updated its marijuana enforcement policy. The policy stated that it would defer the right to challenge state legalization laws, however, it reserves the right to challenge states that have legalized marijuana at any time. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have now legalized marijuana, either medically or recreationally. Still, the federal government can prosecute people for marijuana possession, distribution, or use, even if state marijuana laws protect them.
Federal prosecution of individual patients is relatively rare. This is because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has discretion as to which cases it pursues. Personal and individual marijuana use in states that permit it is a low priority for federal lawmakers, as there are better uses of the government’s financial resources. Medicinal marijuana growers and dispensaries in Arizona continue to attract negative federal attention. Federal prosecutors may send cease and desist letters to dispensaries and pursue further action.
The conflict between state and federal marijuana laws can lead to significant confusion in terms of individual rights. Technically, you could obey all state marijuana laws and still get into legal trouble with the federal government. By learning what to do and what not to do, you decrease your odds of legal issues. Marijuana being legal in state means a person can use and possess marijuana in accordance with state-specific laws and regulations. In Arizona, these include not:
At the same time, federal marijuana laws mean it is possible (although, again, not probable as an individual) to face federal prosecution for your marijuana use even if you are abiding within the legal boundaries of Arizona’s state laws. Until federal laws catch up with state laws, this will continue to be an issue.
You can help prevent drawing federal attention to yourself by avoiding in-depth involvement with a large-scale dispensary and by not purchasing your medical marijuana from a non-legal source, such as a street dealer or unregistered dispensary. If you’re facing legal trouble for marijuana-related offenses in Arizona, retain a Phoenix drug crimes lawyer who is familiar with federal, state, and local substance laws.