By Michaela Hernychova

When travelling through the United States, it is easy to forget that while you are not crossing obvious physical borders, the federal state system means you are entering a territory with laws that can differ vastly. The possession and consumption of marijuana is one of the starkest examples of the states’ varying approaches to the same issue – while recreational use is perfectly legal in some states, the same amount can lead to an arrest in a neighbouring state.

While 64% of Americans support legalisation of marijuana for recreational use, only a small portion of states have decriminalised its use so far. So, while you might encounter relaxed attitudes towards cannabis among the general population, the law does not reflect this in the majority of the country. In fact, harsh prison sentences for minor offences – such as the possession of small amounts of marijuana – are widespread and have been criticised for their negative impacts on the individuals as well as the communities.

Marijuana has been legalised for recreational use in these states as of February 2018: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State, and Washington DC. However, this does not mean its consumption and distribution is not overseen. Each state regulates the legal age (over 21), place (usually licensed premises or one’s private residence), and amount (only a small quantity for personal use). If you follow the specific state laws, you cannot be arrested, ticketed, or convicted for using cannabis. However, illicit trafficking and selling can still result in an arrest.

On the other hand, many states have tough drug laws and a merciless approach to dealing with individuals who are found to possess minimal quantities of marijuana. Florida has one of the strictest anti-drug laws in the country, where carrying up to 20 grams, while classified as a misdemeanour rather than a felony, can be punished by up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Any amount above 20 grams will result in 5 years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. Petty marijuana possessors are treated similarly harshly in Texas – possessing even the slightest amount of the drug can lead to a 9-month prison sentence and a fine of $2,000. Additionally, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, and many other states enforce similar strict laws regarding marijuana possession, which can result in serving prison time and large fines.

In addition to distributing and possessing marijuana, driving under the influence of drugs is an offence and can result in DUI (driving under the influence of intoxicants) charges. Many states have a zero-tolerance policy, where it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle with any detectable quantity of specified drugs in one’s system. Boating Under Influence is also illegal – this not only includes driving a boat, but also riding water skis, sailboards, and other aquatic transportation.

If you are planning on working while visiting the United States, including the Work & Travel programmes that many students participate in during summer months, make sure you research workplace drug testing laws of the specific state as well. Idaho, for example, allows all employers to conduct testing on their employees without providing a valid business reason, and refusal to be tested can result in misconduct discharge and subsequent issues with one’s visa.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises to check individual state legislation before travelling to the United States to ensure you do not unknowingly break the anti-drug laws. However, if you do find yourself in trouble with the law enforcement while overseas, contact your nearest British Consulate and follow the advice on the FCO’s website.