The Impact of Marijuana Laws on Minors

How are marijuana laws enforced when it comes to minors? Should parents seek different regulations? Let’s take a look at this growing concern.

by Laura Onstot | Follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.

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Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in December of 2012. Since then, 17 other states followed suit. Many other states allow marijuana specifically for medical use, and four states ban it altogether. This makes getting a medical marijuana card for use broadly across the states, difficult because it may not be easily recognized in the states that have banned marijuana altogether. In addition, purchasing medical marijuana as an 18-20 year old is not always easy. For instance, an Arizona out of state MMJ card law is tricky, covering adults aged 18-20 for the possession of marijuana but not allowing them to purchase it at medical cannabis dispensaries.

But whether or not states allow medical or recreational marijuana, all states have different laws regarding the possession, sale, cultivation, and paraphernalia. 

Additionally, while it may be legal at a state level, it remains illegal federally. Over time, the US Department of Justice has changed how they enforce this at a federal level. Their current focus is to reduce violent crime, diminish the drug crisis, and break apart gangs; they are less concerned with individual possession charges. 

The enforcement of marijuana in the United States is complex, with different laws in each state and variance in legality on the state vs. federal level. And when it comes to enforcement for minors, there is even more gray area.

Here are three things to know about differing laws on marijuana for minors. 

a person rolling marijuana into a joint
Photo by Kampus Production on

1. All states require marijuana users to be 21 or older. 

One thing that remains consistent across all states is that marijuana use among minors is illegal. In states where it is legal for recreational use, the user must be 21 or older. However, the consequences of being caught with marijuana vary by state.

Teenagers caught with marijuana are subject to legal consequences. What those consequences are will vary by the state where the infraction occurs. For example, Marijuana Enforcement Officer Jim Lenderts of Colorado shared that marijuana is sometimes dealt with by Colorado schools first, rather than turning it into a legal issue immediately. On the other hand, Officer Joshua Hedum, a school resource officer in Cheyenne, Wyoming stated that students caught with marijuana in Cheyenne are dealt with through the legal system immediately.

Say two teenagers, one in Wyoming and one in Colorado, are caught by the police for the same crime: possession of one ounce of marijuana. In Wyoming, this is a misdemeanor, and the teen could face a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of up to $1000. But for the Colorado teen, a minor in possession of one ounce of marijuana is considered a petty offense, with a maximum fine of $100, no jail time, and a drug education class.

3. Maximum sentences are not typically imposed.

According to Hedum, a typical sentence for a first-time marijuana offense in a teenager would be a fine of $325 or a probationary period of 4-6 months of good behavior and random drug testing. If the teenager remains drug-free while on probation, the charges may be removed from their record. However, if the teen continues to use during their probationary period, additional sanctions can be added, such as community service.

Hedum also explained that municipal courts handle most cases of marijuana in minors. But if the teenager has a history of marijuana-related crime or other compounding issues, their case can be bumped up to a higher court, which has more options for sentencing, such as being sent to a boys’ or girls’ home.

The bottom line is that marijuana use is illegal for minors regardless of where they live.

Hedum and Lenderts both agree that parents must educate themselves. In particular, Hedum recommends that parents learn about what marijuana looks like, “They are expecting green-leafed marijuana that smells like skunk, and it’s hardly ever like that.” Lenderts has an educational YouTube presentation called, “The Changing Face of Marijuana,” which provides basic information and includes pictures of what marijuana today looks like in its different forms.

And they both recommend talking to your teenager. As Hedum said, “Either they learn from you through discussion, or they learn from somebody else.”


Hedum, Joshua. School Resource Officer & Certified Drug Recognition Expert, Cheyenne Police Department, Wyoming. Interview. Conducted by Laura Onstot, 14 Apr. 2022.

Lenderts, James. Marijuana Enforcement Officer, Fort Collins Police Services, Colorado. Interview. Conducted by Laura Onstot, 12 Apr. 2022.

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