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Marijuana: The Law

By the end of 2004, ten American states had passed "medical marijuana" laws. The details of these laws vary from state to state, but they usually require a doctor's written prescription for marijuana use and documentation of the illness for which the marijuana is recommended. In some states, patients carry cards that identify them as medical marijuana users. These users must either grow their own plants or find a state-sanctioned grower who can prove that the marijuana is only grown for medical use, and only distributed within the boundaries of that state. Doctors who misidentify patients and permit medical marijuana use where it does not apply face criminal penalties.

On June 6, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under federal law, even in states where "medical marijuana" laws existed, all use of medical marijuana was illegal. Yet later that month, Hardy Myers, Oregon's attorney general, said that under Oregon state law, medical marijuana cultivation and medical use was still legal. This meant that the state would not prosecute growers and users of medical marijuana, but that the federal government could, and the state could not offer protection against the federal laws.

All other use of marijuana in all states is considered a crime. Some states have very stiff penalties even for first-time users. Other states allow first-time users to pay fines and undergo drug testing and counseling. In New Jersey, for instance, the 2003 penalty for a first arrest on marijuana possession was $1,000 and a year of drug testing. Students caught with marijuana lose any federal financial aid they might be receiving for college. If still in high school, the student will not qualify for federal financial aid.

Because marijuana is such a popular recreational drug, federal and state prisons are full of people who have been caught dealing it. Sometimes these dealers face longer jail terms than people convicted of armed robbery or manslaughter. Repeat offenders can be sent to jail for life.

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