The momentum toward cannabis legalization gained significant traction starting in 1996 when California became the first state to legalize medical weed. Another watershed moment occurred in 2012 when Washington and Colorado became the first state to legalize weed for legal recreational use in the United States. Since then, the movement has witnessed growing support from the American public, prompting legislatures to actively engage with the issue in recent years.
Things took a notable turn in 2022 when President Joe Biden took steps to address the impact of cannabis convictions. Pardoning individuals convicted for simple possession under federal law, the President also initiated a review of marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug.
Federal Regulatory Milestones
The Marihuana Tax Act (1937)
The federal cannabis saga commenced in 1937 with the enactment of the Marihuana Tax Act, ushering in the era of cannabis prohibition. Despite its allowance for medical purposes, the legislation imposed new fees and stringent regulatory requirements, significantly restricting cannabis use.
Controlled Substances Act (1970)
A pivotal moment unfolded in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, designating cannabis as a Schedule I drug. This classification, citing a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use, initiated a federal prohibition, affecting its utilization for any purpose.
Federal Reforms (2014-2022)
Subsequent amendments and acts reshaped the federal legalization timeline and it’s stance on cannabis. The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment (2014) restrained the Justice Department from intervening in state medical cannabis laws. The 2018 farm bill marked a historic departure by legalizing low-THC hemp and hemp-derived products, removing them from Schedule I. In 2022, the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act facilitated more accessible research for medical purposes, signifying a landmark federal-level cannabis reform.
Prohibition Era (1911-1933)
The early 20th century witnessed a wave of state-level prohibitions, with Massachusetts taking the lead in 1911 by mandating prescriptions for Indian hemp. By 1933, 29 states had criminalized cannabis, setting the stage for subsequent developments.
Decriminalization Era (1973-1979)
In 1973, Oregon led the way by decriminalizing cannabis, inspiring other states to reduce penalties and reconsider marijuana offenses. New Mexico’s 1978 Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act was groundbreaking, acknowledging the medical value of marijuana.
Medical Cannabis Era (1996-2013)
A new era began in 1996 when California became the first US state to legalize weed. This triggered a wave, with states like Oregon, Alaska, and Washington embracing medical cannabis through ballot measures. Legislative efforts further expanded medical cannabis access, with Hawaii being the first state to legalize weed medically through state legislature in 2000.
Recreational Legalization Era (2012-Present)
The turning point arrived in 2012 when Washington and Colorado became the first state to legalize weed for recreational use. Subsequent years witnessed a domino effect, with states like California, Massachusetts, and Illinois joining the recreational legalization movement. By 2023, several states, including Ohio, Minnesota, and Delaware, embraced recreational cannabis through legislative measures.
Municipalities played a pivotal role in shaping cannabis policy. Cities like Ann Arbor, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. implemented progressive measures, ranging from decriminalization to making cannabis law enforcement the lowest priority. These local efforts contributed to the weed legalization timeline and showcased the diverse approaches taken at the grassroots level.
Territorial & Native American Reservations
Territories and Native American reservations contributed significantly to the evolving cannabis legalization timeline. Guam legalized medical cannabis in 2014, and the Northern Mariana Islands approved recreational cannabis in 2018. Native American tribes, following a 2014 Justice Department policy, embarked on their regulatory paths, with some legalizing cannabis on their reservations.
The trajectory of public sentiment on cannabis legalization in the United States has undergone a remarkable evolution:
- In 1969, Gallup’s initial poll indicated a mere 12% in favor.
- By 1973, the General Social Survey suggested a modest increase to 19%.
- In 1977, Gallup reported 28% support, a figure that remained consistent until 2000.
- A pivotal moment occurred in 2011, with Gallup registering 50% in favor.
- 2013 marked a historic milestone, as both Pew Research and Gallup recorded the first majority support, with 52% and 58%, respectively.
- In 2017, Gallup’s annual poll witnessed a significant rise to 64% support, even gaining majority backing from Republicans.
- The pinnacle was reached in 2018, with an overall support of 66%, transcending political affiliations, age groups, and regional differences.
In short, the journey of cannabis legalization in the United States is a story of continuous change. Starting with California pioneering the path to legalization, medical cannabis has gained approval in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Additionally, the recreational or adult-use of cannabis has been given the green light in the District of Columbia and 24 states. Looking ahead, the outlook appears dynamic, with each development molding the future of cannabis policies in the country.