Support for marijuana legalization in the United States has risen steadily over the years. Today, a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing the drug, although the number of people actually smoking weed is far lower. Slightly more than 13 percent of Americans 12 years old and over report using marijuana in the past year.
To identify the 12 states smoking the most marijuana, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of people 12 years and over who reported smoking marijuana in the past year based on surveys conducted between 2013 and 2014 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also known as SAMHSA. A range of other drug use data, including total drug users, marijuana initiates over the past two years, use in the past month, and perceptions of risk among each state’s 12-years-and-older population, also came from SAMHSA. Maximum fines for possession were obtained from marijuana reform advocate NORML.
These are the five states smoking the most marijuana.
Pct. using marijuana in past year: 21.6 percent
Total users: 909,000 (13th highest)
Pct. using illicit drugs other than marijuana in past month: 4.4 percent (the highest)
Max. fine for possession: $100,000
Perhaps it is no surprise that Colorado leads the nation in pot consumption, with 21.6 percent of residents at least 12 years old reporting using the drug in the past year. Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, and it is one of only four states where recreational use of the drug is permitted. The state’s path towards legalization can be traced to 2005, when Denver erased penalties for marijuana possession. Led by founder Mason Tvert, the marijuana advocacy and nonprofit group, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), played a major role in changing Colorado’s laws. The group aimed to explain the facts about marijuana, particularly the drug’s safety compared to alcohol. State adults over 21 years old may now legally possess 1 ounce of marijuana. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, Colorado generated $135 million in taxes and fees from all marijuana businesses in 2015.
Pct. using marijuana in past year: 19.9 percent
Total users: 649,000 (19th highest)
Pct. using illicit drugs other than marijuana in past month: 3.7 percent (10th highest)
Max. fine for possession: $6,250
Nearly one in five people aged 12 and older in Oregon have used pot in the past year, the second largest share of any state in the country. In the last two years, 37,000 state residents aged 12 and up tried marijuana for the first time. Perhaps not surprisingly, people in Oregon are among the least likely in the country to have a negative perception of marijuana. Only 18.3 percent of state residents 12 years and older perceive a great risk in using marijuana once a month, far lower than the 27.8 percent nationwide share. Oregon is one of four states where recreational use of the drug is legal. State residents 21 and older can possess up to 8 ounces of pot and cultivate up to four plants in the privacy of their home. Still, it is illegal to posses more than an ounce of the drug in public. Those caught with more than 4 ounces can face criminal charges, up to a year in jail, and a $6,250 fine.
Pct. using marijuana in past year: 19.8 percent
Total users: 108,000 (4th lowest)
Pct. using illicit drugs other than marijuana in past month: 3.7 percent (11th highest)
Max. fine for possession: $500,000
Of Vermonters 12 years and older, 19.8 percent report smoking marijuana in the past year, trailing just two other states. Like every other state on this list, medical marijuana is permitted in Vermont. There are several medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. In a report commissioned by the state, the nonprofit think tank Rand Corporation found that Vermonters likely consumed as much as 25 metric tons of marijuana and spent up to $225 million getting high in 2014 alone. The report contains a strong case for full legalization, although it also highlights conflicts that could arise with laws of neighboring states. There are nearly 40 times as many regular marijuana users within 200 miles of Vermont than there are within the state. Currently, possessing up to an ounce marijuana in Vermont can result in a $200 fine. Holding 10 pounds or more of the drug, however, is a felony and punishable by fines of up to a half a million dollars.
Pct. using marijuana in past year: 19.5 percent
Total users: 114,000 (6th lowest)
Pct. using illicit drugs other than marijuana in past month: 3.4 percent (20th highest)
Max. fine for possession: $50,000
In the past two years, roughly 7,000 Alaskans aged 12 and up tried pot for the first time. First time users are among the 19.5 percent state residents who have used marijuana in the past year. High usage rates in Alaska may not be surprising, as the state is one of only four in the country to have legalized marijuana possession. Adults 21 and over can legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants. However, penalties for possession of larger amounts of the drug are relatively harsh in Alaska. Anyone caught with 4 ounces of pot can face felony charges, up to five years in jail, and a $50,000 fine.
Pct. using marijuana in past year: 19.5 percent
Total users: 1,105,000 (9th highest)
Pct. using illicit drugs other than marijuana in past month: 4.0 percent (4th highest)
Max. fine for possession: $10,000
Washington voters passed Initiative 502 on November 6, 2012, which allowed the state to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana has been permitted in the state since 1998. The high percentage of residents using the drug, at nearly one in every five people 12 years and older, is likely tied to the state’s pot-friendly public policy. Legalization has also been very lucrative for the state’s government. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, Washington has generated $210 million in excise taxes from recreational marijuana over the past several years. In contrast with Colorado’s path towards legalization, which was based largely on advocacy for marijuana use, the Washington campaign argued marijuana should be legalized, and regulated, not because it is safe, but because it is dangerous.
More on states smoking the most marijuana
Some states report much higher marijuana use than others. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of people 12 years old and over consuming marijuana at least once in the past year in every state from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Colorado leads the nation with 21.6 percent of people reporting use of the drug.
States with fewer marijuana restrictions tend to have higher cannabis use rates. All four states where recreational marijuana use is legal — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — are among the 12 states with the highest use rates. Every state on this list is among the 25 states where medical marijuana is legal. In these states, a physician may recommend marijuana for the treatment of a range of conditions, including cancer, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, PTSD, eating disorders, chronic pain, and seizures arising from epilepsy and other ailments.
Whether state-level legalization of medical marijuana increases the accessibility and appeal of the drug to young people is still largely an open question. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found there were no significant differences in marijuana use before and after policy changes. The study interviewed 12 million students across multiple years and several states.
The evidence for and against marijuana use is mixed. While benefits for certain medical uses are widely acknowledged, a number of studies have suggested heavy marijuana use during adolescence can have long term negative effects, including lower cognitive functioning, difficulty learning, and memory impairment. However, according to the American Psychological Association, it is still unclear whether there is a safe level of use or whether the brain changes associated with marijuana use are permanent.
Yet, 27.8 percent of Americans perceive smoking marijuana once a month to be a great risk. The share of survey respondents who believe the monthly use of the drug is harmful tends to be lower in the 12 states with the highest user rates.
Mirroring the varied perspectives on marijuana use, the states where pot is legal have introduced legislation for very different reasons. In Colorado, the campaign that eventually led to legalization argued for marijuana as a safe alternative to alcohol. By contrast, in Washington, advocates argued marijuana should be legalized because it is not safe and therefore should be regulated. In Washington, advocates argued further that processing the numerous marijuana cases was an unnecessary burden on the justice system.
High marijuana use rates cluster geographically. Five of the 12 states are in New England, and three are on the West coast.
24/7 Wall St. is a USA TODAY content partner offering financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.