In states across the country, new laws and regulations are paving the way for legal cannabis and cannabinoid businesses. Since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, many other states have followed suit, and in recent years we have finally seen the start of a push toward the legalization of recreational marijuana (within limits). As the health benefits of cannabinoids have become more widely recognized, many states have begun the push to legalize cannabinoid-based products as well. 

Even so, a significant amount of uncertainty remains. State cannabis and cannabinoid laws are not uniform; and, even where cultivation and distribution are now legalized, business licensing requirements vary widely from state to state. As a result, businesses and customers alike often face significant challenges when it comes to understanding what is—and isn’t—allowed in their state. This guide serves as the starting point for understanding what you need to know about the legality of cannabis and cannabinoids in all 50 states.

What Are Cannabinoids?

What are cannabinoids? Cannabinoids are the naturally-occurring chemicals found in the cannabis plant. Cannabis naturally produces more than 100 cannabinoids, all of which have different properties—and different effects. However, the two most common cannabinoids, and the two most important cannabinoids when discussing legality, are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Cannabinoids can also be derived from hemp—and this is critical for the legality of CBD, as discussed below. Even though cannabis and hemp produce the same chemical compound of CBD, CBD derived from hemp contains less THC than CBD derived from cannabis. CBD and THC are treated differently for legal purposes, and this effectively means that CBD derived from cannabis and CBD derived from hemp are treated differently as well.

What is Cannabidiol (CBD)?

Cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, is a cannabinoid found in cannabis, and it is the primary cannabinoid found in hemp. As more states make the push to legalize cannabis and cannabinoids, medical researchers are gaining a greater understanding of CBD’s possible benefits. Today, it is found in certain medications as well as a variety of foods, oils, cosmetics, lotions, and other products.

What is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?

Tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, also has certain recognized beneficial effects—primarily as a pain reliever. But, THC also has psychoactive properties (which are less potent with delta-8), and this is what has prevented the widespread legalization of THC that we are currently seeing with CBD, albeit gradually in some states. Like CBD, THC comes from both cannabis and hemp; and, while THC is no longer fully illegal, it is still much more tightly controlled at the state and federal levels.

Are Cannabinoids the Same as Marijuana?

When discussing the legality of cannabinoids, it is also important to clarify the distinction between cannabinoids and marijuana. Marijuana and cannabis are often used interchangeably, although strictly speaking “marijuana” refers to the parts of the cannabis plant that contain high concentrations of THC.

As a result, cannabinoids and marijuana are not the same. Cannabinoids are specific chemical compounds derived from both cannabis and hemp, while marijuana refers to specific parts of the cannabis plant. This means that the laws regarding cannabinoids and marijuana are not the same, either. When researching the legality of CBD and THC, it is necessary to focus specifically on the laws that apply to these cannabinoids. In several states, for example, marijuana remains strictly illegal while the sale of CBD is permitted subject to compliance with the states’ licensing rules and other regulatory requirements.

How Do the States Treat Cannabinoids for Legal Purposes?

While there used to be a significant amount of confusion about the relationship between marijuana and cannabinoids at the government level (and this is likely still the case in some places), it seems that state lawmakers and regulators are beginning to gain a more accurate understanding of their differences. The states are beginning to treat marijuana, CBD, and THC differently, with each state currently taking its own unique approach to: 

  • Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana for medical use
  • Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana for recreational use (or “adult use”)
  • Legalizing CBD derived from hemp
  • Legalizing CBD derived from cannabis 
  • Legalizing CBD products that contain THC

Some states are treating delta-8 and delta-9 THC differently as well. Delta-8 is a less-potent form of THC that does not have the same level of psychoactive effects as delta-9. However, delta-8 only exists naturally in cannabis and hemp in small quantities; and, with the ongoing push toward legalization, the synthetic development of delta-8 is becoming more common. So, when evaluating the legality of cannabinoids at the state level, it is necessary not only to examine the differences between the laws governing marijuana, CBD, and THC, but also to examine the differences between the laws governing natural delta-8, synthetic delta-8, and delta-9 (if any).