California Legal Information

  • Medical and adult use of cannabis (21+) are legal in California.
  • Additional state legislation further implements the voter initiatives legalizing medical and adult use cannabis and creates a framework for licensing commercial medical and adult use cannabis.
  • Specific state rules for commercial medical and adult use cannabis should be in effect by January 1, 2018.
  • Cities and counties may adopt their own rules about medical and adult use cannabis. 

California voters adopted the Compassionate Use Act (CUA), known as Proposition 215, in 1996. That landmark voter initiative removed criminal penalties for most cannabis crimes for patients with a doctor’s recommendation for medical cannabis use (Qualified Patients) and their designated Primary Caregivers. CUA allows doctors to recommend cannabis for any serious or persistent medical condition, and allows Qualified Patients to legally use, possess, and grow cannabis.  Qualified Patients may also designate a Primary Caregiver to assist them. A Primary Caregiver is someone who has “consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety” of the Qualified Patient.

The state legislature adopted the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA), known as SB 420 (Vasconcellos), in 2003. MMPA establishes a voluntary ID card program, protections for transporting cannabis, and a legal framework to protect not-for-profit patients’ cooperatives and collectives. The voluntary registry issues ID cards that offer protection from arrest for patients and caregivers in possession of no more than eight ounces of useable cannabis, or cultivating no more than six mature or twelve immature plants. Patients and designated caregivers without a state ID card or those in possession of larger quantities are afforded an affirmative defense. Qualified Patients on probation or parole may legally use medical cannabis with the consent of their probation or parole officer.  Municipalities may restrict or ban the operation of not-for-profit cooperatives and collectives in their jurisdiction. 

The California Attorney General published guidelines for interpreting the MMPA in 2008. These non-binding guidelines explain how to comply with MMPA for patients, doctors, law enforcement and cooperative and collective cultivation associations (including storefront dispensaries).

The California legislature adopted three bills, known collectively as the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), to license and regulate commercial medical cannabis activity in 2015. When fully implemented on January 1, 2018, the bills will license and regulate the lawful cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, sales, and testing of medical cannabis in the state. MCRSA establishes the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation (BMCR) in the California Department of Consumer Affairs (CDCA). The BMCR and other state agencies are charged with writing rules and issuing licenses for medical cannabis businesses and organizations. MCRSA crates a “dual licensing” model. Applicants for state licenses must have a permit, license or authorization from the city or county in which they operate or propose to operate.

Qualified Patients are exempt from state licensing requirements under MMRSA, if they cultivate 100 square feet or less of medical cannabis. Primary Caregivers serving up to five Qualified Patients may cultivate up to 500 square feet of medical cannabis without a state license. Cities and counties retain the right to license, regulate or ban medical cannabis cultivation.  MMRSA repeals the cooperative and collective cultivation option created by the MMPA one year after state licensing agencies post a notice that commercial licensing is underway.

California voters approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), on November 8, 2016. The initiative reduces or eliminates most penalties for the non-medical use, possession and cultivation of cannabis, within certain limits, by adults aged twenty-one and over. It also creates a state licensing and regulation program for adult use of cannabis to run in parallel with MCRSA. AUMA differs from MCRSA is some aspects related to commercial license types, restrictions on holding multiple licenses, etc.

AUMA imposes a 15% excise tax on medical and adult use cannabis, as well as a tax of $9.25 per ounce on all cultivation. However, the initiative exempts Qualified Patients with a voluntary ID card issued pursuant to MMPA from ordinary state sales and use tax. AUMA also enhances patient privacy and protects legal patients from discrimination related to parental rights.

The roll out of MCRSA and AUMA should be complete by January 1, 2018, but amendments, new legislation and additional rule making are likely to continue for several years. Cities and counties retain broad rights to license, regulate and ban medical and adult use cannabis activity, subject to limits imposed by AUMA. Local medical and adult use ordinances vary in their scope and contents. 


In This Section

California's Medical Marijuana Laws & Regulations

Proposition 215, California Senate Bill 420, California County and City Medical Cannabis Laws etc.

Becoming a Patient in California

Patients and their caregivers are permitted to legally use, have, and grow cannabis for medical purposes. The law also protects not-for-profit collective and cooperative grow operations and allows primary caregivers to be reimbursed for the costs of their services.

Recommending Cannabis in California

Medical professionals recommending medical cannabis must posses a license to practice medicine or osteopathy in California issued by the Medical Board of California or the Osteopathic Medical Board of California. This license must be in good standing and meet the following requirements.

How to Defend a Medical Marijuana Patient in California

The CUA provides basic protections for medical marijuana patients and their primary caregivers from prosecution for cultivation and possession of marijuana for medical use. Since it became effective on November 5, 1996, California courts of appeal have, for the most part, narrowly construed its provisions, fearing an "open sesame" for marijuana distribution not intended by the California voters. Learn more about how to defend medical marijuana patients in California.

Facing state or federal charges?

Unfortunately, patients, caregivers, and providers are still vulnerable to federal and state arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration. They also suffer pervasive discrimination in employment, child custody, housing, public accommodation, education and medical care.

State of California Medical Cannabis Rulings

Landmark legal rulings in California

Patient/Caregiver Legal Checklist

Any patient or caregiver can become the target of a law enforcement action. Each person who decides to use medical cannabis, or helps a patient to do so, should be prepared in advance to successfully maneuver through these encounters. You might not be able to avoid arrest in each instance, but chances of successfully fighting charges are greatly improved by education and careful planning. There are many measures you can take before legal problems occur. Here is a checklist that patients and caregivers can use to prepare themselves.

California: Frequently Asked Legal Questions

ASA has been supporting the CA medical cannabis community since 2002. This section includes the most frequently asked questions from CA patients and providers including housing issues, employment, child custody, criminal charges, patients on probation and parole, and more.