Marijuana policy reform has been a long time coming. It may seem as though marijuana went straight from criminal to legal in the stretch of a single election, but it isn’t so. Legalization has a deep, remarkable history in America.
The full story started in 1492, when Christopher Columbus brought the first pot plants to North America. But we’ll skip ahead a few centuries to more recent developments.
Before the Great Depression, marijuana wasn’t even on the American radar. Farmers had grown it for hemp since the early colonial era; even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had hemp farms.
The drug was popular in parts of Latin America, including Mexico, but it wasn’t widely used in the United States until the early 20th century. Its use by Mexican immigrants quickly convinced Americans it was a dangerous, degenerate drug, and states started banning it out of racism.
1937: Federal Bureau of Narcotics Banned Cannabis
Then, in the 1930s, a man named Harry J. Anslinger went on a tear. Anslinger served as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor to the DEA, from 1930-1962, the longest reign of any federal anti-drug chief.
Within less than seven years of taking office, he managed to convince Congress to completely ban cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis. The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 criminalized a large segment of the population in one fell swoop.
The Tax Stamp Act required anyone who hoped to sell cannabis to pay a tax and get a license. However, the law was designed so it was practically impossible to do so (with the exception of during World War II, when the feds actually encouraged hemp production). Selling pot without a license was treated as tax evasion and could draw a substantial prison sentence.
States banned marijuana under their own laws in a process that started well before 1937; Massachusetts was the first to do so, in 1911. By the time Ansinger’s law took effect, the drug was illegal everywhere in America under both federal and state statutes.
1970: Controlled Substances Act Introduced
That changed in 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a high-profile drug conviction, ruling that the Tax Stamp Act was unconstitutional. The fun didn’t last, however: The next year Congress and President Richard Nixon enacted the Controlled Substances Act, a harsh statute that declared weed to be among the most dangerous substances in the world.
And that’s where things stood for nearly 30 years. Then, in 1996, as public support for legalization began its slow climb out of the basement, Californian voters passed the first medical marijuana law in the world. Several other states followed suit within the next few years.
Unfortunately, the federal government didn’t get the memo: The DEA and federal prosecutors continued to arrest and incarcerate innocent low-level marijuana patients and providers. The anti-weed campaign even picked up speed as support for legal pot crossed the 50 percent threshold.
Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and numerous others have followed suit since.
Finally, in November 2012, Colorado joined Washington to become one of the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreation. Amendment 64, the legalization initiative, passed by a wide margin: 55 percent to 45 percent. The new law allows purchase and possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis per person, while residents may grow up to four plants at home. Amendment 64 also imposes regulations and a sales tax on the legal marijuana industry.
Washington voters legalized marijuana for recreation in the November 2012 election, along with Colorado. The vote on Washington’s Initiative 502 was even wider than the spread on legalization in Colorado: 56 percent in favor to 44 percent against. The law allows purchase, possession, and use of up to 1 ounce of cannabis per person. Home grows are prohibited.
Two states legalized recreational marijuana in November 2014: Oregon and Alaska. In Oregon, the vote on Ballot Measure 91 was 56 percent in favor to 44 percent against, similar to the margin in Washington in 2012. Oregon law allows purchase and possession of up to an ounce of cannabis in public and 8 ounces in private, along with cultivation of up to four plants at home.
Alaska’s Ballot Measure 2 legalized cannabis for recreational use by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. It allows adults over 21 to purchase, possession, and use of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants at home, with no more than three mature at the same time.
2014: Washington, D.C.
Voters in the District of Columbia also opted in 2014 to make recreational cannabis possession and use legal in the nation’s capital. Initiative 71, which passed by a massive 65 percent for to 35 percent against, allows adults to grow up to six plants at home and possess up to 2 ounces. But Congress has blocked the District from licensing retail pot shops, leaving users with no legal way to obtain the drug other than to grow it or receive it as a gift.
Voters in California passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), also known as Prop 64, by a wide margin at the ballot box in 2016. The state has had the longest-running medical marijuana system in the nation, but now cannabis is also legal for recreational use. Adults are permitted to possess up to one ounce of flower and/or up to eight grams of marijuana concentrates. Prop 64 also allows home cultivation; adults may grow up to six plants at once.
Bringing reform to the East Coast for the first time, the recreational use of cannabis became legal in Massachusetts after voters passed Question 4 at the ballot in 2016. The new law allows adults in the state to possess up to an ounce of marijuana plant and/or five grams of concentrates. Residents of Massachusetts are also allowed to grow marijuana plants at home; the state’s cultivation laws allow six plants per person, with no more than 12 in a single residence.
Meanwhile, 27 states allow full-plant medical marijuana, and others may join them soon – including Utah and Florida, both relatively conservative states where the idea of reform is gaining ground. Twelve states, including Florida and Utah, allow a limited, non-intoxicating form of cannabis as treatment for epileptic children.
The Future of Cannabis Legalization
Expect even bigger developments in the years to come. Rhode Island, Michigan, Illinois, Hawaii, New York, and Vermont are all on the list of states that could legalize soon. Reforms have even begun at the federal level. Late last year, Congress passed a law barring the DEA and federal prosecutors from targeting medical marijuana providers in states where MMJ is legal. Marijuana has come a long way. It still has a long way to go, but it’s highly unlikely anything will stop it now.