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Making two interstate moves in a matter of months, with two young children in tow, wasn't something Moriah Barnhart had planned for.
But within weeks of her 2-year-old daughter, Dahlia, being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, Barnhart packed the family's bags. They moved from Tampa, Fla., to Memphis, Tenn., last June so her toddler could undergo treatment at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. While there, Barnhart's research pointed her to medical marijuana as a worthy treatment to inhibit the cancer and mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy.
"It just was the safest and most viable, effective option," she said. "But it was illegal in Tennessee and in Florida."
So just before Christmas, the Barnhart family was on the road once again, this time to Colorado Springs, Colo. Now, Dahlia gets a small dose daily of a nonpsychoactive (i.e., one that doesn't trigger a high) hemp oil strain called Phoenix Tears—and, Barnhart says, is back to being a happy toddler, even as her cancer battle and chemo treatments continue.
The Barnharts are just one of many so-called "marijuana refugees" who have relocated or are planning to move amid the shifting legal landscape on medical and recreational use. Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have given the green light to treat certain medical conditions with marijuana; Colorado and Washington residents voted in 2012 to decriminalize recreational use. Several other states, including New York and Florida, could see medical marijuana laws on the books this year.
It's tough to gauge the rate of marijuana-inspired moves. Just 0.4 percent of people who moved in the year ended July 1, 2013, said they did so for health reasons, according to the Census Bureau. That's down from 2 percent who said so in 2011. And although Census data put Colorado and Washington among the top 10 interstate move destinations last year, both states' population growth rates are on par with those of previous years.
At least anecdotally, advocates say they're hearing from plenty of families who want in. "As soon as we have the intake form up, we're swamped with requests," said Lindsey Rinehart, co-founder of Undergreen Railroad, which helps people raise money and organize interstate moves to medical marijuana-friendly states. Rinehart is herself a marijuana refugee, having moved from Idaho to Oregon last summer to treat her multiple sclerosis.
Since Undergreen Railroad's start last fall, the group of nine volunteers has arranged four family moves—one each to California and Oregon, and two to Colorado—with six more in the works. "Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin are the states we get the most requests from, to leave," said Rinehart.
Realm of Caring Foundation, whose nonpsychoactive cannabis strain Charlotte's Web is popular among pediatric epilepsy patients, has seen even more demand. The nonprofit says more than 100 families have moved to Colorado for Charlotte's Web, and nearly 200 more are on a waiting list with intent to move when more supply becomes available.
"These are people who don't travel on vacation, they can't even take a Make-a-Wish Trip … but they've had to move," said spokeswoman Paige Figi. (Charlotte's Web is named for Figi's daughter, who used to have dozens of seizures a day. Now, with a daily dose of the oil, Charlotte might have just a few seizures a month, she said.)
(Read more: Families struggle to pay medical bills, survey finds)
Despite the interest, when push comes to shove marijuana refugees may find that relocating isn't easy—or effective. State laws permitting medical marijuana use are often restrictive, limiting dispensary locations and approving use only for certain conditions, said Diane Fornbacher, publisher of Ladybud Magazine. That's why she plans to move her family from one state with a medical marijuana law (New Jersey) to another (Colorado) this spring.
"I don't qualify under New Jersey programs," said Fornbacher, who has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. "We're moving for that reason. I would like to be medicated." (PTSD isn't covered under Colorado's medical marijuana program either, but Fornbacher can legally buy her medicine from a dispensary licensed for recreational sales.)
Even in Colorado and Washington, where recreational use is allowed, some areas are more open than others.
(Read more: The best cities to live for marijuana lovers)
"I'm bursting people's bubbles on a daily basis," said Colorado real estate broker Bob Costello. Costello, who bills himself as "the 420-friendly realty broker," said many out-of-state residents who call to inquire about property listings are unaware of nuances in state law that limit growing to six plants—no more than half of which can be mature flowering plants—and that permit local governments to limit or ban pot retail.
For example, Douglas County, located between Denver and Colorado Springs, was the first county to ban marijuana operations back in 2012. "It's very much middle-class suburbia," said Costello, and that makes it attractive to many would-be residents. "But if you're going to have the lifestyle, Douglas County is not the place for you."
Consumers may also find exclusions of certain kinds of properties. Communities with homeowners associations might prohibit growing, and condo and co-op boards generally frown on any kind of smoke that seeps through ducts into neighboring properties, he said. Would-be tenants may also find that landlords prohibit smoking (pot or otherwise) on property.
(Read more: U.S. to approve banking service for weed businesses)
Then, of course, there are the usual moving considerations. Families aren't likely to be looking solely for proximity to dispensaries, said Jed Kolko, chief economist for Trulia.com. "Often, for lots of people in a home search, school districts and low crime are both important," he said. Commute time to work, proximity to family and friends and overall affordability also matter.
That last attribute can be particularly tricky. Many marijuana refugees are already dealing with expensive medical conditions and need help from fund-raisers and sponsors to make the move. In some cases, the move splits families, with some members staying behind to hold down jobs, Figi said. "It's a tough decision to make," she said.
It doesn't help that many of the states where marijuana use is allowed are also those that have higher costs of living. According to CNBC's America's Top States for Business 2013, none of the 10 states with the lowest cost of living has legalized marijuana. Of the 10 with the highest, nine have medical marijuana laws—Hawaii, Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont—and the only holdout, New York, is taking steps to follow suit. Washington and Colorado aren't cheap, either. In the rankings, just 14 states had a higher cost of living than Washington; 18 were pricier than Colorado.
(See chart below for median home prices in top U.S. metropolitan areas where medical or recreational marijuana use is legal.)
But it's all relative, depending on where marijuana refugees hail from. "It's ridiculous how much more space we're getting," said Fornbacher, who has narrowed her house hunt to the Denver suburbs. "Freedom is priceless, but the cost of living in Colorado doesn't seem that extraordinary compared to New Jersey, which has some of the highest real estate taxes in the country."
States may not be able to count on residents to put down roots, however. Advocates say they hope that it will be a matter of just a few years before interstate moves aren't necessary—and many of those moving said they'd go back if laws change. "I want to come home," Fornbacher said. "Moving breaks my heart, because this is the home we wanted to keep. I resent having to leave."
(Read more: Companies woo the weed crowd with artful,edgy ads)
Realm of Caring Foundation opened up a waiting list in late January for people who want to receive Charlotte's Web once it's legally available in their home state. "Within hours of putting that up, we had 580 U.S. residents and 60 more international sign up," Figi said. The foundation has also been working to license dispensaries in seven more medical marijuana states.
Barnhart has been focused on the recent Florida Supreme Court ruling that will put an amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use on the ballot in November. "So we have eight months to beg people in Florida to vote for it," she said. And if it passes? "We'll be home with our family and friends the day they initiate it."
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter and on Google.