Do Marijuana Laws Protect Me From Getting Sued?

Mitchell Collins

If your state has passed marijuana legalization laws, you may be wondering if you can still get into trouble for using it. Are you fully protected by these laws, or do risks remain that you could be sued or even arrested for smoking a joint? Let’s consider what these laws mean for marijuana users.

First of all, research the marijuana laws in your state. No two states are alike with respect to these laws, and they’re changing fast. This fact alone should send a warning signal to marijuana users who want to stay out of trouble. Not only are these laws new and potentially confusing to you, but law enforcement officers, judges and attorneys are still learning about them and trying to figure out their policies and procedures.

In recent years, states have been progressively legalizing the use of marijuana. States usually start off by decriminalizing marijuana, meaning that the drug remains technically illegal but by policy the laws aren’t usually enforced. Then states move to legalize medical marijuana for licensed patients demonstrating a medical need, as well as dispensaries to provide the drug to them. This allowance eventually gives way to legalizing the growing and using of marijuana for recreational purposes. Marijuana has now been broadly legalized in eight states: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Massachusetts and Maine.

Despite all these changes, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even in states that have legalized it. The federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning that they consider it to have a high potential for abuse with no medical value. Furthermore, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has told federal prosecutors to crack down on marijuana businesses operating legally under their respective states’ laws. For now, it appears that individual marijuana users aren’t targeted by the feds, but that could change overnight.

All the marijuana laws specify certain restrictions. Smoking marijuana in public is illegal in all states. Employers are allowed to prohibit marijuana use, and they can test for it and use a positive result as cause for termination. Landlords can refuse to rent to pot smokers. In most cases, any private party or government agency can prohibit use on their property.

Mere possession is illegal under some circumstances too. Most states limit possession to a maximum amount, such as one ounce (which is a lot), and they prohibit the possession of any amount on the grounds of grade schools.

If you’re following the law, you should still realize that frivolous lawsuits happen. After all, we live in a country where writing a negative online review could get you sued for libel. Your use of marijuana can be used to impugn your character in court. In a parental dispute over child custody, for instance, the opposing lawyer could use your smoking habit to paint you as an unreliable druggie slacker, even though your smoking may be perfectly legal where you live.

Even in states that have legalized recreational use of cannabis, the consequences of using marijuana and driving remain potentially severe. “Although many people feel they can drive safely while high on marijuana, driving under the influence of pot is still illegal,” says Jason Hennessey, marketing director for several law firms that handle such cases. “In fact, it’s treated almost identically to drunk driving and all other forms of DUI under state law.” Worse still, cannabis metabolites remain detectable in the body for days and weeks after use, so you could get a DUI without being high if the test comes back positive and the prosecutor can establish that you were impaired. Also keep in mind that as you drive across state lines, all the laws change. Driving from Nevada into Utah, for instance, is a risky proposition for the pot smoker.

Though marijuana has been legalized in many states, the legal risks incurred by using this drug remain quite high. None of the state laws can protect you from being sued, or worse, for using marijuana. Use at your own risk.


Mitchell Collins, law school student and freelance writer
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