California Cannabis: Legal vs Illegal

Tess DiNapoli
5 min readApr 22, 2022


California has been a pioneer state in legalizing the use of cannabis. The medical use of cannabis has been legal since 1996, and its recreational use since late 2016. Since then, many cannabis businesses have flourished, offering a wide variety of quality products. But there are still some legal restrictions on the use and purchase of cannabis.

So what are the legal terms of recreational and medical cannabis use in California? What’s legal and what’s illegal? Let’s go over some key regulations and what they mean for the consumption and purchase of cannabis and its derivatives.

Photo by Shelby Ireland on Unsplash

California Cannabis Laws & Regulations

California is the first state that allowed medical use of cannabis in 1996 when the Compassionate Use Act was passed by voters. The legal framework regulating cannabis use, retail, manufacturing, and testing has certainly come a long way since then, with a larger area of legal freedoms enjoyed by both businesses and users.

The laws surrounding cannabis in California can be divided into three distinct areas: statutes, regulations and ordinances. The main statute, Medicinal and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA) sets up the framework for licensing, regulation, and enforcement for cannabis businesses. Moreover, The Health and Safety Code 11357 sets up the ground rules for cannabis users, essentially outlining rules on the age limit and amount of cannabis a person can possess, as well as medical cannabis requirements.

There are also regulations by the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) for cannabis businesses on licensing issues, packaging and labeling requirements, testing requirements, and limits of what can and cannot be made into a cannabis product.

Finally, there are equity ordinances in some cities and counties of California that help people who have been negatively affected by the War on Drugs. These ordinances support equity applicants in application processes, facilitating their licensing processes, offer help with business operations, and even direct financial support in some eligible cases.

Equity ordinances available in cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Long Beach aim to increase inclusivity in the cannabis marketplace.

2017 Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA)

The Act which legalized the recreational use of cannabis, the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA) was passed in 2017 by California voters. This meant the legalization of recreational use and sale of cannabis, but also regulatory laws and rules for cannabis retail sales as well as its use.

Before MAUCRSA was passed in 1996, the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA, Proposition 215) had passed in California, as one of the first legal acts allowing registered medical marijuana patients to gain access to cannabis within the state of California.

After California voters passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA, Proposition 64) in 2016, MAUCRSA was drafted and passed to unify the medical cannabis laws with the new laws allowing recreational use and purchase of cannabis products. Today, the cannabis industry, both medical and recreational, is defined within the legal framework drawn out in MAUCRSA.

California Health & Safety Code 11357 HS

The Health and Safety Code 11357 HS regulates the terms of unlawful possession of marijuana in California. It prohibits the possession of over 28.5 grams of dried marijuana or 8 grams of concentrated cannabis, as well as possession by a minor under 21 or any possession within the premises of a K-12 school.

What’s Legal?

If you’re over the age of 21, you can legally purchase and consume cannabis products. People 18 or older may legally purchase medical marijuana, with some exceptions for younger patients. The Bureau of Cannabis Control regulates California state cannabis industry, while The Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch oversees cannabis-infused edible products.

There are 14 types of licenses for the legal cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, testing, and retail sales of cannabis and cannabis products within California. All licensing processes are conducted by the Bureau of Cannabis Control.

For many cannabis users in California, weed delivery is a convenient way to access a wide range of marijuana products. According to the amended Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, licensed retailers and microbusinesses can deliver cannabis and legal marijuana products in California to people over 21 at physical addresses. Recreational users can access a wide variety of hemp derivatives from THC detox products to CBD products for health and wellness.

Photo by David Gabrić on Unsplash

What’s Illegal?

According to state and federal regulations, in the state of California it’s illegal to:

  • Possess over 28.5 grams of cannabis plant material and 8 grams of concentrated cannabis
  • Give or sell retail cannabis to a minor under 21 years of age (unless in accordance with California medical marijuana laws)
  • Drive under the influence of cannabis
  • Selling retail cannabis products or transporting them for sale without a license
  • Possess marijuana within the premises of a K-12 school during school hours
  • Consume, smoke, eat, or vape cannabis in public
  • Consume cannabis in locations where smoking is illegal (bars, restaurants, buildings open to the public, places of employment, and areas within 15 feet of doors and ventilation openings)
  • Consume or possess cannabis on federal lands such as national parks
  • Take your cannabis across state lines (even when you are traveling to a state where cannabis is legal).

Violation of California’s cannabis laws is considered a misdemeanor for most people. However, for individuals who have a criminal history involving multiple drug convictions, the violation of California drug laws may be classified as a felony. There are, of course, different penalties for different types of violations including counseling, community service, and fines up to $500.

A lot of progress has been made since the first attempts for a legal basis for cannabis consumption in the state of California around the 1970s. Today, although there is an extensive legal framework enabling users to access cannabis for recreational and medical purposes, the existing framework establishes clear boundaries deeming certain practices illegal. For both businesses and users, it’s important to get educated on these legal boundaries for the safest and most enjoyable experience with cannabis and cannabis products.



Tess DiNapoli

Tess DiNapoli is an artist, freelance writer, and content strategist. She has a passion for yoga and often writes about fitness & wellness, as well as fashion.