Medicinal marijuana is legal is New Jersey and several states have legalized recreational use of the drug as well. It seems as though attitudes are changing about marijuana – even former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a marijuana opponent throughout his elected career, has changed his mind.

Attitudes are changing, but the law has not. When it comes to criminal matters, the law is what matters.

A hard look at the law

In New Jersey, medicinal marijuana is legal but limited. Doctors must recommend a patient for the program, and then they are allowed up to two ounces of dried cannabis per month, or topical products and edible oils in some cases. Many patients in the program suffer from chronic pain, HIV/AIDS, inflammatory bowel disease, seizures or multiple sclerosis.

While certain patients in a select medicinal program are allowed marijuana, it’s still a criminal offense for anyone else, regardless of what is legal in other states. Charges vary depending on the amount in possession, your age and intent. Possession may be a misdemeanor or a felony. Intent is the most challenging part of the law, as arresting officers can determine, based on the amount in possession, if there was intent to sell or distribute to others. Possession of significant paraphernalia, such as rolling papers or a scale, may be enough to inspire intent to distribute charges.

Implications beyond the present day

It goes without saying that a conviction will limit future opportunity. A criminal record is a red flag for prospective employers, landlords, banks, schools and other institutions vital to your future success. A minor drug offense may disqualify you for student loans and it may turn away people who would have otherwise given you a chance.

While an arrest and seizure of drugs or paraphernalia is daunting, it is not a guarantee that you will be found guilty of a crime. The law is strict, but sentencing depends on your criminal background history, the circumstances of the arrest, and how the police conducted a search and seizure. Marijuana is a federally controlled substance, but individuals still the right against self-incrimination and to seek legal counsel before a hearing. By protecting your rights now, you are also protecting your future.