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The History of Legal Cannabis In The USA

Last Updated: September 13, 2022By Joshua Mezher

The history of cannabis has a complicated timeline. It’s gone from legalization to being outlawed to being legalized again (in some places). But in different countries and even different states, the histories have varied considerably. In this brief history of cannabis in the United States, we will discuss the history of medical cannabis and recreational cannabis both in today’s world, recent history, and the general cannabis ancient history. When it comes to cannabis history, facts outweigh the complicated politics surrounding this plant, at least in recent history.


A History of Cannabis

When you look at it from a global perspective, cannabis ancient history goes back a long way. Its first references stem back thousands of years, possibly first in ancient China in 600 BCE, if not earlier. It was used for ropes and other goods, for medicines, and simply for fun.

The cannabis history of the USA is also worth noting, however. A hundred years before George Washington was the first president, hemp plants grew abundantly. George Washington wrote about the hemp plants being cultivated on his land. This history started in the Virginia Colonies in the 1600s, when Jamestown was actually required to grow and export hemp plants for England. Industrial hemp was commonly used for all sorts of objects, tools, and goods. For the next several hundred years, cannabis was used as a medicine by many people. It was even found in medical books as a legitimate substance to treat various ailments.

More recently, cannabis laws have become stricter and stricter, especially with the War on Drugs. The US’s Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 had profound effects on accessing cannabis for medicinal use (let alone recreational use). State by state, cannabis was designated a poison, and any existing poison laws would apply to cannabis as well. California was actually the first state to use such a label.

Hemp was nonetheless commercially grown in the United States until the late 1950s. After that, marijuana was illegal, and the Marijuana Tax Act placed additional taxation on anyone dealing with the commercial side of cannabis. This law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1969, but it did not do any good.  President Nixon created the Controlled Substances Act and added cannabis to the list of so-called Schedule I drugs, considered the most
dangerous drugs in the land. This had enormous repercussions, as cannabis remains a Schedule I drug to this very day. Cannabis had a history of contention in the United States. This fully criminalized it.

Since then, medical cannabis has resurfaced in the United States, one state at a time. More than half of the 50 states have some sort of medical marijuana program. Around a dozen states permit recreational marijuana for adults 21 years of age and older. The legalization of cannabis is increasing and could possibly change on the federal level in just a few years.


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Why was Cannabis Banned Throughout History?

The prohibition of cannabis began when the government labeled cannabis a poison in the early 1900s. In practice, it became less available in 1906 due to the Pure Food and Drug Act, after which states began adding cannabis to their list of poisonous substances. This was solidified on the federal level when President Richard Nixon added it to the Schedule I list. 

However, the prohibition of cannabis goes nearly as far back as the cannabis as a medicine history. In ancient China (600s BCE), where the earliest references to cannabis are documented, there was a societal view of cannabis as somewhat antisocial. It was not acceptable for members of society. Because of the problems with opium in China’s history, the two became associated -- even if they are entirely different substances.

In Egypt in the 1300s, Sufis were known for their cannabis fields. This was at a time when it was increasingly looked down upon, along with Sufis themselves. They were both branded as a societal threat - their fields destroyed, and their farmers punished. This conflict lasted for decades and escalated more and more.

In Catholicism, the pope banned cannabis in 1484, mainly because of its connection with paganism, which was a threat to religion. Anyone cultivating cannabis was punished harshly.


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A Timeline of Cannabis History

A cannabis history timeline helps you understand the progression of historical events relating to cannabis laws. The following is a cannabis history timeline that gives a progressive overview of how laws have changed in the United States, as well as a history of medical cannabis.


Early 1600s   Until late 1800s the American colonies not only could grow hemp, but they were encouraged to do so by the British government before the Revolutionary War and the United States government after that. After the Civil War, hemp stopped being used as much and was replaced by other materials or imported goods. 
Late 1800s: Marijuana became popular as a useful medical ingredient. Pharmacies sold it openly and legally.
1906: Pure Food and Drug Act made labels about cannabis mandatory in any medicine that had it as an ingredient.
Early 1900s: After many Mexican immigrants moved to the US after the Mexican Revolution (1910), an association was made between recreational marijuana and Mexican immigrants. Fear and resentment towards immigrants during economic hardship (particularly during the Great Depression) led to more public, governmental action. Crimes, immigrants, and marijuana were all (unjustifiably) associated with one another. The majority of states had criminalized marijuana by the year 1931.
1930s-1970s: Federal laws increased, a counterculture of marijuana users emerged, and stricter penalties for marijuana possession are enacted.
1989: George H.W. Bush declared a War on Drugs
1996: California, the first state to label cannabis as a poison in the early 1900s, legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes, despite the federal law prohibiting it.

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History of Medical Cannabis

The use of cannabis as a medicine, history tells us, has been around for thousands of years. In the United States, the medical marijuana journey began -- and was subsequently thwarted -- during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was commonly used as an ingredient in over-the-counter pharmaceuticals sold at pharmacies around the country. 

However, the turning point came around the year 1906. At that time, the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. It added stricter laws for the labeling of medicines. Now all products must label any cannabis ingredients. The federal government enacted penalties for anyone who wasn’t labeling their drugs properly. They called cannabis a “poison” that required a doctor’s prescription.  They even required manufacturers to add the word “poison” to their products if sold outside of a
licensed pharmacy. These laws varied by state but gradually gained traction.

Over the next 30 years, poison laws increased. Even if well-intentioned, it had the unfortunate effect of grouping marijuana with other drugs (many of which were actually
dangerous). In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act practically outlawed marijuana across the United States. It is worth noting that the American Medical Association explicitly objected to this but was ignored. In 1938, the government founded the Food and Drug Administration to enforce these laws.  

By the 1970s, marijuana became popular among young white college students, leading to the easing of the harsh penalties normally given to those who used or possessed marijuana. Still, it remained illegal, even for medical purposes. 20 years later, the state of California legalized medical marijuana. Since then, other states followed suit, leading to today, where most US states have legalized some version of medical marijuana.


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The United States has also seen decriminalization happening state by state. When it comes to cannabis history, the USA tends to move one state at a time. This is slightly different from fully legalizing marijuana, as it serves as a kind of middle-ground for making marijuana crimes less devastating for small, harmless amounts of possession or use.

Decriminalization looks different in every state, but it generally means that the person in question is not arrested. It also typically means being charged with the offense does not carry any jail time or even a criminal record. This is usually reserved for smaller possession charges, as long as it is clearly only for personal use, and it is the first offense.

Decriminalization does not mean “get off scot-free.”  It is a method of leniency for first-time offenders. There are
decriminalization laws in 26 states in the US. It is important to note that the laws vary quite a bit, and decriminalization does not mean the same thing in one state as it does the next. 


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A Timeline of Cannabis Legalization

In this brief history of cannabis legalization, we look at decriminalization, medical marijuana, and other legalizations in the United States:   

1973: Oregon decriminalizes cannabis
1975: Cannabis decriminalized in Alaska, Main, Colorado, California, and Ohio
1976: Cannabis decriminalized in Minnesota
1977: Cannabis decriminalized in Mississippi, New York, North Carolina
1996: Medical marijuana legalized in California
1996: Medical marijuana legalized in California
1998: Some level of medical marijuana legalized in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington state
1999: Maine legalized medical marijuana
2000: Medical marijuana legalized in Colorado, Hawaii, and Nevada
2001: Cannabis decriminalized in Nevada
2004: Medical marijuana legalized in Montana and Vermont
2007: Medical marijuana legalized in New Mexico, Rhode Island
2008: Medical marijuana legalized in Michigan; cannabis decriminalized in Massachusetts
2009: Obama Administration tells federal prosecutors to not prosecute those distributing medical cannabis, as long as it fits their own state’s laws; medical marijuana legalized in New Jersey
2010: Medical marijuana legalized in Arizona and Washington DC
2011: Medical marijuana legalized in Delaware; marijuana decriminalized in Connecticut
2012: Medical marijuana legalized in Massachusetts; recreational marijuana legalized in Colorado, Washington state; marijuana decriminalized in Rhode Island
2013: Medical marijuana legalized in Illinois and New Hampshire; marijuana decriminalized in Vermont
2014: Recreational marijuana legalized in Alaska, DC, and Oregon; medical marijuana legalized in Minnesota, New York state; marijuana decriminalized in DC, Maryland, Missouri
2015: Marijuana decriminalized in Delaware
2016: Medical marijuana legalized in Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania; recreational marijuana legalized in California, Massachusetts, Nevada; marijuana decriminalized in Illinois
2017: Medical marijuana legalized in West Virginia; marijuana decriminalized in New Hampshire
2018: Medical marijuana legalized in Oklahoma, recreational marijuana legalized in Vermont; Trump administration escalates enforcement of federal law despite state-level marijuana laws
2019: Marijuana decriminalized in New Mexico, North Dakota, Hawaii
2020: Marijuana decriminalized in Virginia


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Marijuana Legalization in the US

Since the 1970s, two waves of decriminalization movements have passed in multiple states in the US. As for legalization, there were a few key events related to cannabis, a history long fraught with legal changes and challenges. Different states tried to update and change their laws in a variety of ways.  

First, many states tried out decriminalization (see above). Decriminalization paved the way for more open-minded ideas and
laws, such as medical marijuana programs. California was the first state with a medical marijuana program for registered patients. This was a pioneering moment that opened the eyes of governing bodies across the nation. Now they could consider creating a legal program for those who are registered and prescribed cannabis by a doctor.

In the years following California’s initial legalization movement, other states began to legalize medical marijuana only. These medical marijuana laws and programs looked very different. Some states allowed a full range of types of marijuana, as well as home cultivation, as long as you had a prescription from a licensed physician. Other states only allowed cannabis extracts, keeping things extremely strict and limiting all patients to these types of products rather than allowing them the freedom to decide. 

In 2012, Colorado and Washington State were the first to legalize recreational cannabis use for adults aged 21 and older. While they were the first states to do so, they most certainly were not the last. Alaska, Washington DC, and Oregon quickly followed suit, just two years after that. Clearly, a movement had begun. 

Although the movement of these policies is clearly going in one direction (towards legalization), even today, there is a huge difference between each state in terms of its local laws for marijuana possession, use, and cultivation. Some states allow just
medical marijuana to be used and sold, while others permit recreational marijuana as well as medical. Even within the rules of the legalization of recreational marijuana, the details can vary greatly. Some states allow home cultivation of marijuana plants, usually with an upper limit, while other states don’t allow any home growing whatsoever. Clearly, the rules vary widely from state to state today, as they always have in the past.


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Marijuana Legalization Worldwide

Of course, the United States isn’t the only country to change its legal view of marijuana. Cannabis history in Canada, for example, is fairly important as well. It is the first country to legalize marijuana at the national level. Much like the United States, cannabis was prohibited in the 1900s. Specifically, this happened in 1923, when cannabis was added to the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill alongside opium and other drugs. A few decades later, however, cannabis became a popular recreational drug despite its prohibition. A few decades after that, it was legalized on the national level for adults in Canada. Cannabis history in Canada, therefore, has a happy ending.

cannabis history in the UK doesn’t have quite as happy of an ending. Still, it nonetheless has improved from the dark ages. While cannabis is quite popular in the country, it still remains illegal for recreational use. It has been prohibited since 1928, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it was more strictly classified since it had become more popular as an illegal drug. In 2018, medical cannabis was finally legalized, making the cannabis history of the UK a slightly happier one. Ironically, the UK exports the most legal cannabis globally, even though its own citizens cannot consume its products. 

history of cannabis in Australia is a joyful one; it ends in the full legalization of recreational marijuana in 2019 in certain provinces. Before that, it had prohibited marijuana in the 1920s along with much of the rest of the Global North. It signed onto the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs, where marijuana was equated with other harmful drugs like cocaine and heroin. Still, it was used frequently in the country from an earlier time than in other countries. In 2016, the national government legalized medicinal marijuana. The next stage in the history of cannabis in Australia is sure to be a happy one.

When you look at the
cannabis history facts, you can easily see how politics and historical processes have played more of a role in cannabis legalization than the actual effects of the plant. Marijuana legalization is growing, not only in the United States but around the world. Some countries are well ahead of the US in legalization, but some US states are also leading the effort. It is a complicated, convoluted history that is worth understanding – even if only to learn why the fear and negativity surrounding the use of marijuana was never really about cannabis at all.

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