The legal status of marijuana in the United States has evolved over time. A complete understanding of the legality of the plant is complicated by contradictory laws between the federal and state authorities, distinctions between medical and recreational marijuana, and the constant development of new laws based on court decisions. Here is a brief overview of the legal status of marijuana, from the country’s inception until now.
The Early Days (Founding Until 1937)
Marijuana was widely grown in the colonies in the form of hemp, which was used for fabrics, paper, and other materials. The founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, actually grew substantial amounts of cannabis plants for these purposes.
The Declaration of Independence itself is written on hemp paper – an ironic twist of history considering the legal ramifications that would later come with regard to the plant.
The Commonwealth of Virginia actually passed a law mandating cannabis cultivation in 1619 to encourage more growth of the useful material.
It’s worth noting here that, although the growth of cannabis was indeed commonplace, there is little evidence that smoking the plant was practiced in those early years of U.S. history. The plants are grown for fabrics usually contain only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound responsible for the high.
So, smoking those leaves would likely have produced little to no effect. It’s safe to assume that the Founding Fathers were not actually stoners, despite what many advocates might want people to believe.
The Wild West of Weed
The practice of smoking weed was first introduced to the American psyche as the frontier expanded westward and Mexicans who smoked and interacted with settlers. This led to the use of marijuana products in medicines sold at pharmacies, as well as providing the first instances of the complicated history of marijuana use and racism which still has ramifications today.
The first federal prohibition against marijuana appeared in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, passed by then-president Richard Nixon against the social upheaval background of the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, and the growing hippie counterculture which characterized the tumultuous 1960s. Marijuana use became intentionally conflated, often through propaganda films like Reefer Madness, with “undesirable” elements of societies such as social and racial minorities.
Further federal propaganda campaigns unfolded, most notably the infamous “DARE” campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, pushed by conservative elements that gained power under Ronald Reagan.
The War on Drugs had begun in earnest and would lead to the incarceration of millions of nonviolent drug offenders and an enormous federal bureaucracy with agencies such as the DEA and ATF enforcing the law.
The Modern Cannabis Revolution
Starting in the 1990s, public opinion, medical research into the benefits of marijuana as medicine, and advocacy campaigning began to slowly chip away at the War on Drugs. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, setting a precedent that spread across the country.
States began joining in on the medical cannabis movement, which many legalization groups rightly perceived as the first step towards decriminalization and eventual total legalization.
Dispensaries began cropping up everywhere. Business investors saw new opportunities, and capital poured into both cultivation and sales of marijuana in states where it became legal. Michigan dispensaries, along with dispensaries across the nation, now provide safe, legal access to marijuana for customers.
Marijuana purchases are no longer restricted to leaves for smoking. CBD oils, edible marijuana in the form of gummies, drinks, and more, and concentrated marijuana products like “shatter” now provide an array of ways to medicate or get high.
Tax revenues have generated enormous sums of public money in states that have fully legalized marijuana, even for recreational purposes. Colorado, for example, experienced such a windfall tax boost that the state was not adequately prepared to disperse the money and referendums had to be held concerning how best to spend the money. As advocates have pointed out, most of the tax revenue has gone to important and underfunded public organizations like schools.
Seeing the Big Picture
Marijuana is now fully legalized in a number of West Coast and East Coast states. Meanwhile, many states in the South and Midwest lag behind. However, it is conceivable that within the next 10-20 years, even those holdout states will bow to public pressure and legalize as well. The current trends certainly seem to indicate a bright future for marijuana cultivation in the United States and sweeping reform of laws governing it.