The Complete History of Federal Marijuana Legalization

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Cannabis has been by our side since the beginning of agriculture. For the great majority of human use of cannabis, it has been legal to use in all its various forms. However, in only the last one hundred years, marijuana laws shifted more than they had in 10,000 years. Since the 1930s, weed has been subjected to various legal restrictions worldwide, with the U.S. federal government playing a significant role in its classification as a prohibited substance. So, what better way to understand our favorite plant than to explore the complete history of federal marijuana legalization?

While it makes sense for us to concentrate on this timeline when discussing cannabis legalization, it’s critical to put things in their proper historical context. First, we must acknowledge that the cannabis plant has been a valuable crop throughout civilizations for hundreds to thousands of years before it was made illegal. It seems obvious when we look at all the possible ways to use this amazing plant, many of which were applied in the ancient world.

For some of these cultures, cannabis was a valuable crop in all areas of their society – food, fiber, medicine, and religious sacrament. Unfortunately, we’ve lost many of these applications in modern times due to its federal status as a Schedule I drug. We are only now beginning to relearn the valuable lessons of our ancestors regarding the usefulness of cannabis. So, let’s dive into this history and explore how federal cannabis legalization has changed.

Cannabis Legalization in the USA

The history of cannabis legalization in the United States is long and complex. To ensure we tell this story correctly, we’ve split it up into three distinct periods – pre-legalization (up to 1937), medical legalization (1937-1996) and recreational legalization (1996-present).

Pre-Legalization (Up to 1937)

Cannabis has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. Some historians believe it was first domesticated in Central Asia. From there, it spread worldwide, becoming an integral part of many cultures.

Cannabis was cultivated in North America as early as the 16th century when hemp was grown like any other crop. Hemp was widely produced in the 17th century to make clothes, ropes, and sails. Cannabis was commonly accepted in mainstream medicine between the mid-1800s and early 1900s and was used to treat various conditions, including opioid withdrawal, pain, appetite stimulation, and nausea. In 1906, the Food and Drug Act mandated that any product containing cannabis be labeled correctly.

The Early 1900s and the Term ‘Marijuana’

Until 1910, American awareness of cannabis was primarily as a fiber and textile in the form of hemp. This began to change during the Mexican Revolution when thousands of Mexicans legally immigrated to the U.S. to flee war violence. This influx of Mexicans seeking safety and the returning U.S. soldiers involved in the conflict brought a new word to America – marijuana.

This term originated in Mexico a hundred years prior, a Catholic-sounding name used by the native people to secretly reference a plant they used for spiritual and medicinal purposes. This new word circulated around the U.S. during and after the Mexican Revolution, bringing awareness to a completely ‘new’ way of using cannabis – aka marijuana.

The new century also saw the rise of the Temperance Movement and prohibition, which further demonized cannabis. The first state to outlaw possession of the plant was Massachusetts in 1911. This was followed by New York, California, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Arkansas. Despite these state-level bans, cannabis use continued relatively unabated.

In 1912, the States began passing laws that taxed cannabis businesses. These new regulations led to a decrease in both legal and illegal use of the plant. Meanwhile, Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, began a campaign to portray marijuana as a harmful drug that caused insanity.

The Push Against and For Legalization (1937-1996)

Cannabis was the main objective of the Federal Narcotics Bureau, later known as the DEA, during the 1930s. Harry Anslinger ran the agency, notorious for its zero-tolerance policy on all prohibited drug use.

The Federal Narcotics Bureau & Reefer Madness

As cannabis use became more prevalent, Anslinger used his position to spread hateful and fearmongering propaganda, blaming Mexican immigrants and Black jazz musicians for cannabis use. This messaging was riddled with false claims that cannabis made them commit crimes and allowed them to “corrupt” innocent white women with their devil’s weed. These blatantly racist and bigoted messages played into the unspoken fears and ignorance of a mostly prejudiced society, the precursor to making cannabis illegal everywhere.

In 1936, an anti-cannabis propaganda film, Reefer Madness, was released, making waves in American society and further amplifying the xenophobic messaging of Anslinger. The film features gross exaggerations of the effects of smoking weed, which unfortunately was taken literally by most viewers during this era.

For context, America was still in the middle of the Great Depression, and the powers that be had now found their newest scapegoat for society’s woes. Despite clearly being a thinly-veiled smear campaign, Reefer Madness created a stigma that snowballed viciously and rapidly towards federal prohibition.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Anslinger’s campaign against cannabis culminated with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. To prevent recreational use, Congress passed a law regulating the import, cultivation and possession of cannabis.

At the time, the U.S. government did not have the power to enact an outright ban, so the Tax Act was a loophole allowing them to impose a heavy tax against anyone using the plant. The tax act’s legacy would become one of the most harmful — as countries globally followed suit and passed cannabis prohibition laws.

By the 1940s, marijuana was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia, and doctors began to doubt its usefulness as a medicine. In 1944, The New York Academy of Medicine released a study declaring that marijuana was only a moderate intoxicant. Harry Anslinger reacted to this research by publishing an essay in the American Journal of Psychiatry aimed at discrediting and undermining the findings they had previously presented.

Cannabis from the 1950s to the 1980s

To give you a brief overview, the 1950s were terrible for cannabis users. In 1951, the Boggs Act was passed, which increased mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses. A first-time violation of cannabis possession could now result in a two to a ten-year prison sentence and a $20,000 fine.

Counterculture figures in the 1960s championed weed as a harmless way to get high. Its use was popular among groups like college students, anti-war activists and hippies. Both President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson commissioned reports that found evidence marijuana didn’t lead to violence or harder drug use.

As authorities began to sternly crack down on marijuana use and distribution in 1965-1970, state level Marijuana arrests increased. Other notable events throughout this time include:

  • The Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress in 1970, classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This designation put it in the same category as LSD and heroin. The act stated that marijuana had no medicinal value and was highly subject to abuse. This law marred the ability of medical professionals to research marijuana and its potential applications.
  • Despite federal level efforts to enforce strict marijuana laws, states such as Oregon, Maine, and Alaska decriminalized it.
  • In 1976, the parents’ movement against marijuana got underway, as more and more parents were concerned about it and worked to keep their children from using it. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse supported them.

The 1980s

The 80s were a time when the “War on Drugs” was in full swing. President Ronald Reagan supported stricter drug use penalties and increased law enforcement funding. In 1986, he signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which set minimum sentences for drug offenses. Unfortunately, this law contributed to the mass incarceration of black and Latino people, as they were disproportionately arrested and sentenced for drug crimes.

Other events during this era:

  • First Lady Nancy Reagan started the “Just Say No” campaign in 1982.
  • The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program was established in 1983.
  • In 1989, President George H.W. Bush reestablished the “War on Drugs,” and campaigns to end marijuana use were reignited.

The late 80s saw a sudden change in how people perceived weed as more and more began to accept cannabis’ medical benefits.

The Modern Era of Marijuana (1996-present)

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Since this change in legislation, a total of 37 states have legalized it for medicinal purposes. However, cannabis has yet to be re-classified at the federal level, which continues to consider it a Schedule I drug with no medicinal value.

The classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug has been the cornerstone of a deadly, fruitless war that has affected countless lives. Not only did this categorization prevent recreational and spiritual access to cannabis, but it also made any scientific research on its potential medical benefits virtually impossible.

Still, in the face of adversity, the cannabis community pushed on.

Pioneering Legalized Cannabis Research in the 1990s

Things began to change in the 1990s, thanks to pioneering discoveries by an Israeli researcher and his scientists. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam had been studying the various compounds in cannabis since 1963. Still, the Controlled Substances Act halted his progress until he could continue his work nearly twenty years later in his native home of Israel.

He discovered the first cannabinoid receptor in 1988 and the second in 1993, eventually putting together pieces of the puzzle to discover the Endo Cannabinoid System. The ECS is an internal system that helps to regulate many human bodily functions, including appetite, pain sensation, mood, libido and sleep.

These discoveries caused excitement in the scientific and cannabis communities and led more researchers to study cannabis, its compounds, and its interactions with the Endo Cannabinoid System. As a result, several scientific journals were published on the potential benefits of cannabis, bringing it credibility and highlighting its medicinal properties.

Prop 215 and Compassionate Cannabis in California

In 1996, California became the first state to pass a law legalizing medical cannabis with Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act. The act protected patients and caregivers from state prosecution if they possessed or cultivated marijuana for medical purposes. It also allowed the formation of collectives and dispensaries to distribute cannabis to qualified patients.

This change in state and local governments’ attitudes toward cannabis opened the door for more research on its medicinal properties. With public health in a crisis during the AIDS epidemic, cannabis became a tool for healing in San Francisco. Dennis Peron and “Brownie Mary” Rathbun exemplify this. Both had discovered that cannabis was particularly beneficial for those they knew who suffered from wasting disease. Cannabis was aiding in the treatment of their malnutrition, weight loss, and physical discomfort.

“Brownie Mary” was baking hundreds of weed brownies, gifting them to anyone in need. At the same time, Dennis Peron opened the first ever cannabis club in San Francisco after seeing how it helped alleviate his partner’s HIV symptoms. Their impact on changing attitudes towards cannabis across the country cannot be underestimated. After sharing a joint together at Cafe Flore – across the street from our lovely dispensary! – they devised a plan to reform cannabis law.

Historic Bills of the mid-2000s

After California’s passage of Proposition 215, similar efforts were approved in Alaska, Oregon and Washington by the end of 1998. Many other states would pass some form of medical laws in the following years until another historical precedent was set in 2012.

Colorado and Washington became the first two states to approve bills that legalized, regulated and taxed cannabis for adults aged 21 and over. Marijuana retail stores opened in Colorado on January 1, 2014, and Washington’s weed dispensaries opened on July 8, 2014. This had a domino effect as Oregon and Alaska followed suit with their recreational use bills.

In 2016, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine finally legalized recreational marijuana. These bills kick-started the version of legalization we see today.

Cannabis and the Justice Department

Throughout this era in cannabis history, the Obama administration took a hands-off approach to states that had legalized marijuana as long as they implemented strong regulation and enforcement systems. However, the Trump administration has taken a more aggressive stance, threatening to crack down on states with legal weed.

When President Trump was elected in 2016 and Jeff Sessions was appointed as U.S. Attorney General in 2017, many wondered if the federal government would start to crack down on states that had legalized adult use marijuana. On January 4, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the hands-off policy implemented by President Obama’s Department of Justice and instructed federal prosecutors to make their own decisions about whether or not to prosecute marijuana offenses.

In the Nov. 2020 election, four states legalized recreational marijuana: Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Two additional states legalized medical marijuana: Mississippi and South Dakota.

On December 4, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a marijuana decriminalization bill (228-164) that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and impose a 5% tax on it to help those most affected by marijuana prohibition. Even though the legislation was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate, it was the first time either chamber had done so.

The Future of Legalization

Despite the ever-changing political landscape, cannabis legalization is here to stay. More and more states are passing laws to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, and public opinion is shifting in favor of cannabis. With each step forward, we get closer to a future where cannabis is legal nationwide.

Righting the Wrongs of the Drug War

Cannabis legalization is not only about allowing people to use a plant that makes them feel good – it’s also about righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs. After decades of prohibition, we are finally starting to see some progress in repairing the damage that has been done. Legalization provides opportunities for those affected by the War on Drugs to start new businesses, rebuild their lives and contribute to their communities.

As we move forward, it’s important to remember why we’re fighting for legalization in the first place. We must continue to advocate for full legalization at the federal level so that all Americans can enjoy the benefits of this plant. We must also work to ensure that the new industry is inclusive and represents the diversity of the cannabis community. Only then can we start to repair the damage that has been done by decades of prohibition.

Repairing the Perception of Cannabis

If we look at cannabis’ history in this light, we can see that the trials and tribulations it has been through actually make up a relatively short period. Cannabis advocates should be aware that humanity has had a positive, productive relationship with this plant throughout the ages.

We’re grateful to have been a part of the community that kicked-started the 1996 medical cannabis movement in California. This progressive change not only improved people’s perception of weed but also transformed its legal and social status in America and globally.

As we approach what will hopefully be a pivotal moment in cannabis’ timeline, it remains as crucial as ever to illustrate how and why we got here.

Terrance Alan
Terrance Alan

Terrance Alan has over 25 years in government advocacy creating both the San Francisco entertainment commission and the cannabis taskforce. He is co-president of the Castro merchant’s and co-chair of CMAC and C2K, both working on cannabis consumption. He designed, constructed and opened a boutique dispensary in the Castro District of San Francisco called Flore dispensary featuring carefully curated cannabis selections with an emphasis on small Humboldt far grown cannabis, social justice brands, equity brands, women owned brands and operates a compassion distribution program with Sweetleaf Joe.

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