Botanical Empress
Cannabis Law

The Legal History of Cannabis in the United States

Before we talk about the history of this infamous plant, let’s clear something up first. 

“Marijuana” is a racial slur given to cannabis when political figures blamed the hardships Americans were going through during the Great Depression on the influx of Mexicans who came to America after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. However, it is recorded in history that Mexican immigrants are the ones who taught Americans how to smoke cannabis for recreational use. 

Medicinal use of cannabis dates back at least 5,000 years, and because of this, cannabis history is tied to many iconic periods. 

  • Cannabis was said to have been an ingredient in a holy anointing oil referenced in the original Hebrew version of Exodus.
  • The Ancient Egyptians reportedly used cannabis to treat glaucoma as well as general inflammation. 
  • Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi called cannabis a popular medicine in 2,900 BC, and the Chinese had identified more than 100 medicinal uses for cannabis by 100 AD.

Because of political, racial, and religious agendas, cannabis became controversial in the United States.

To better understand how such a beneficial plant became illegal to grow, use, and even study, let’s dive into the history of cannabis in the United States. 

Early History 

1619 – King James I ordered Jamestown colonists to grow and export 100 hemp plants to help support England.

  • George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon as one of his three primary crops.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of hemp for rope and fabric became prevalent.

In the 1850s – Cannabis used for medicinal purposes in the United States became widely available, partly due to William O’Shaughnessy a decade earlier in 1839.

  • It was used to treat opioid withdrawal, pain, appetite stimulation, and relief of nausea and vomiting.

1853 – Cannabis was listed as a “fashionable narcotic.”

1860 – New York passed a law singling out cannabis as a poison due to a string of suicides allegedly involving the substance. 

  • This law prohibited the sale of cannabis and other substances deemed poisonous without a physician’s written order.

1883 – An article written by Harry Hubbell for Harper’s Magazine describes a hashish-house in New York frequented by a large clientele, including males and females of “the better classes,” and further talks about parlors in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

1874 – First reports of hemp cigarettes used by Mexican soldiers


1905 – Eight states have “sale of poisons” laws that specifically mention cannabis. 

  • Those states are 
    • North Carolina
    • Ohio
    • Wisconsin
    • Louisiana
    • Vermont
    • Maine
    • Montana 
    • D.C. 
  • Many states did not consider cannabis a “poison” but required it to be labeled.

1906 – The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress to require certain drugs, including cannabis, to be accurately labeled.

  • This is also part of D.C’s “act to regulate the practice of pharmacy and the sale of poisons and for other purposes.”

1907 – The Poison Act was passed and amended in California in 1909, 1911, and 1913 to take possession of extracts. 

  • Tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or “loco-weed,” their preparations and compounds a misdemeanor.
  • There is no evidence that this law was ever used or intended to restrict pharmaceutical cannabis.

1914 – One of the first cannabis drug raids in the United States occurred in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Sonora town in Los Angeles. 

  • Police raided two “dream gardens” and confiscated a wagonload of cannabis.
  • Tensions rose between U.S. Citizens and Mexicans that came to America after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. 
    • Large farms would hire Mexicans as cheap labor making smaller farms upset. 
    • Many Mexicans would smoke marijuana to relax after working the fields and introduced it to Americans as a cheaper alternative to having an altered state since Prohibition made alcohol illegal in 1920. 
    • During the Great Depression, many politicians and Americans blamed the crisis on the Mexicans. Since Mexicans were known for smoking cannabis, the racist term marijuana started to be used. Harsher laws were lobbied to tamp down the evil that Mexicans were bringing into the country.

1915-1929 – Other states followed California with their own marijuana laws: 

  • Wyoming (1915)
  • Texas (1919)
  • Iowa (1923)
  • Nevada (1923)
  • Oregon (1923)
  • Washington (1923)
  • Arkansas (1923 
  • Nebraska (1927)
  • Louisiana (1927) 
  • Colorado (1929)

1925 – The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act was put together by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. It stated that traffic in narcotic drugs should have the same safeguards and regulations in all states. 

  • By the mid-1930s, all states had some regulation of cannabis.

1930 – The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed, and the use of cannabis and other drugs came under increasing scrutiny.

  • Harry J. Anslinger headed it. 
  • This was formed to help the government outlaw all recreational drugs.
  •  Henry Anslinger claimed that cannabis caused people to commit violent crimes and act irrationally and overly sexually. From this belief, the FBN produced propaganda films to help promote Anslinger’s views.

1936 – A propaganda film titled “Reefer Madness” was produced to push Henry Anslinger’s inaccurate beliefs further.

  • It depicted marijuana as a drug that could lead to violence, rape, suicide, and psychosis.

1937 – The Marihuana Tax Act made possession or transfer of marijuana illegal throughout the United States under federal law, excluding medical and industrial uses. 

  • The annual fees were $24 ($637 today) for importers, manufacturers, and cultivators of cannabis. $1 ($24 today) for medical and research purposes, and $3 ($82 today) for industrial users. 
  • Detailed sales logs were required to record marihuana sales.
  •  Selling marihuana to any person who had previously paid the annual fee incurred a tax of $1 per ounce or fraction thereof; however, the tax was $100 ($2,206 today) per ounce or fraction thereof to sell any person who had not registered and paid the annual fee.
  • Since the federal government had no authority under the 10th Amendment to regulate medicines, that power was reserved by individual states in 1937. Thus, a tax was the only viable way to legislate marijuana. 
  • The decision of the United States Congress to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was based on poorly attended hearings and reports based on questionable studies.

1938 – The Pure Food and Drug act was updated to the Federal Pure Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act which is still in effect today. 

  • Through this revision, the framework for prescription and non-prescription drugs and foods is set, along with standards and the enforcing agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

1942 – Marijuana was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, and doctors began to discredit marijuana for no medicinal use.

1952 – The Boggs Act amended the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act and set mandatory sentences for drug convictions. 

  • A first offense conviction for marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000.

1970 – In response to the Supreme Court ruling on the Marijuana Tax Act, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which repealed the Marijuana Tax Act.

  • Although the new law officially prohibited the use of cannabis for any purpose, it also eliminated mandatory minimum sentences and reduced simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. 
  • Under the CSA, cannabis was assigned a Schedule I classification, deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use – thereby prohibiting even medical use of the drug. 
  • The classification has remained since the CSA was first signed into law, despite multiple efforts to reschedule. Other drugs in the Schedule I category include heroin, LSD, and peyote.

1972 – President Richard Nixon opposes the policy of cannabis decriminalization. 

  • He states: “I do not believe that you can have effective criminal justice based on a philosophy that something is half legal and half illegal … despite what the [Shafer Commission] has recommended.”

1976 – The parents’ movement against marijuana began, as more and more parents feared the drug and sought to prevent use in teens. 

  • Their efforts were strengthened by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

1977 – President Jimmy Carter endorses legislation to decriminalize cannabis federally. 

  • He stated that “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

1980s – The public opinion of marijuana shifted back to it being dangerous, as many considered it a gateway drug to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

  • Presidential candidate at the time, Ronald Reagan, warns that “Leading medical researchers are concluding that marijuana … is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.”

1982 – First Lady Nancy Reagan started the “Just Say No” campaign.

1983 – The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program was established, which brought police officers into schools to discuss the dangers of drug abuse. 

  • This program’s funding and use were later cut back as research showed that it did not lead to decreased drug use in youth.

1986 – The Anti-Drug Abuse Act reinstated mandatory prison sentences, including large-scale cannabis distribution.

  • Later an amendment created a three-strikes law, which demanded a mandatory 25-years imprisonment for repeated serious crimes – including certain drug offenses – and allowed the death penalty against “drug kingpins.”

1989 – Bush’s War on Drugs – President George Bush declared a new War on Drugs in a nationally televised speech.

1996 – Former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush urge the defeat of medical cannabis initiatives in California and Arizona, asserting in an open letter that the measures pose “enormous threats” to the public health of all Americans.

1998 – 1999 – The Clinton administration spent $25 million on television campaigns that placed anti-drug messages in primetime T.V. shows.


1944 – La Guardia Report finds marijuana less dangerous.

  • New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report declaring that, contrary to earlier research and popular belief, the use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity, or sex crimes or lead to addiction or other drug use.

1969 – The case Leary v. the United States was where the U.S. Supreme Court found the Marijuana Tax Act unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The 1970s – Compassionate IND Program is a program that allowed patients with severe medical conditions to receive a regular supply of cannabis from the federal government.

  • Only 13 patients ended up participating due to the very complicated and drawn-out application process involved.

1972 – The Shafer Commission, led by former Pennsylvania governor Raymond P. Shafer, determined in its March 1972 report to the President and Congress that the societal harms caused by cannabis were limited and recommended the removal of criminal penalties for possession and distribution of small amounts of the drug.

  • Although no federal reforms resulted, the report’s findings helped influence decriminalization laws in several states during the 1970s.

1973 – 1978 – The First Wave of Decriminalization Began. In 1973 Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis, reducing the penalty for up to one ounce to a $100 fine. 

  • States that decriminalized in the following years were: 
    • Alaska (1975)
    • Maine (1975)
    • Colorado (1975)
    • California (1975)
    • Ohio (1975) 
    • Minnesota (1976)
    • Mississippi (1977)
    • New York (1977) 
    • North Carolina (1977) 
    • Nebraska (1978)
  • NORML was actively involved in helping to pass these laws, lobbying in support of the legislation, and paying for decriminalization proponents (including members of the Shafer Commission) to travel to various states to testify.

1978-1982 – Early Medical Cannabis Laws started to form.  During the late 1970s and into the early 80s, several states passed legislation addressing the medical use of cannabis.

  • New Mexico was the first to do so in 1978, and by the end of 1982, over thirty states had followed suit.
  • The majority of these laws sought to provide cannabis through federally-approved research programs administered by the states, using cannabis supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 
  • However, only seven states implemented the programs due to the significant bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles involved. Other states passed laws allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis or reclassify cannabis in a state’s internal drug scheduling system. 
  • Additionally, a few states passed legislation affirming the right of individuals to present a medical necessity defense at trial.
  • These laws were all largely ineffectual due to the continued prohibition of medical cannabis at the federal level.
  • By the mid-80s, efforts to pass new medical cannabis laws had ground to a halt, and several existing laws were either repealed or allowed to expire.

1988 – In September 1988, after two years of extensive public hearings, DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young ruled in favor of moving cannabis to a Schedule II classification, finding that “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

  • Young further concluded: “The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people and doing so with safety under medical supervision. Therefore, it would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.”
  • Young’s ruling was only a non-binding recommendation. However, it was rejected by DEA Administrator John Lawn in December 1989.
  •  A 1994 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling upheld the DEA’s final decision.

1991 – The first medical cannabis dispensaries began to open. 

  • San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club was the first in the United States, followed closely by the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in 1993 and the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative in 1995. 
  • These were the first cannabis dispensaries in the U.S., allowed to operate openly by city officials even though in violation of both state and federal law.

1996 – The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 – On November 5, 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215 (Compassionate Use Act of 1996), making the state the first in the nation to legalize the medical use of cannabis.

  • The measure, approved with 56% of the vote, allowed the use, possession, and cultivation of cannabis by patients with a physician’s recommendation for treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”
  • The law also allowed patient caregivers to cultivate cannabis and urged lawmakers to facilitate the “safe and affordable distribution of marijuana.”
  • The passage of Proposition 215 was followed by the approval of five more medical cannabis ballot initiatives in 1998 (Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, and the District of Columbia).
  •  Maine followed in 1999, along with Nevada (for a second time) and Colorado in 2000.
  • Also, in 2000, Hawaii became the first state to legalize medical cannabis through the state legislature.

The 2000s – The Second Wave of Decriminalization – In 2001, Nevada became the first state in over two decades to decriminalize cannabis.

  • In the following years, major cities across the U.S. began to either decriminalize cannabis or make enforcement of cannabis laws the lowest priority. Among the first cities to do so were:
    • Seattle (2003)
    • Oakland (2004)
    • Denver (2005)
    • San Francisco (2006)
    • Massachusetts (2008)
    • Connecticut (2011)
    • Rhode Island (2012)
    • Vermont (2013)
    • District of Columbia (2014)
    • Maryland (2014)
    • Missouri (2014)
    • U.S. Virgin Islands (2014)
    • Delaware (2015)
    • Illinois (2016)
    • New Hampshire (2017)
    • New Mexico (2019)
    • North Dakota (2019)
    • Hawaii (2019)
    • Virginia (2020)

2012 – On November 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use of cannabis when voters approved Colorado Amendment 64 and Washington Initiative 502. 

  • Each regulated cannabis in a way like alcohol, allowing possession of up to an ounce for adults ages 21 and older, with DUID provisions identical to those against drunk driving. 
  • Unlike Initiative 502, Amendment 64 allowed for the personal cultivation of up to six plants. 
  • Both allowed for commercial cultivation and sales, subject to regulation and taxes.

2014 – In November 2014, the states of Alaska (Measure 2) and Oregon (Ballot Measure 91), along with Washington D.C. (Initiative 71), legalized the recreational use of cannabis. 

  • These laws were like Colorado and Washington, except the D.C. initiative did not contain an allowance for commercial sale. 
  • A rider attached to the 2014 “Cromnibus” bill further prevented D.C. council members from enacting legislation to allow for commercial sale.

2014 – The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment passes the U.S. House and is signed into law requiring the annual renewal of state medical licenses. 

  • This Amendment prohibits the Justice Department from interfering with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. 

2014 – In December 2014, the Justice Department announced a policy to allow recognized Indian tribes to legalize the use and sale of cannabis on American Indian reservations.

  • The laws on reservations are allowed to be different from state and federal laws. However, as has been the case with state recreational legalization, the federal government said it would not intervene if strict controls are maintained. 
  • In 2015, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (of South Dakota) voted to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
  • Others such as Yakama Nation and the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council have rejected legalization on their reservations.

2016 – In November 2016, the number of legal states doubled as four more states passed ballot measures to legalize cannabis: California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine.

  • This included the nation’s most populous state (California), while Massachusetts and Maine became the first eastern states to legalize.

2018 – The 2018 Farm Bill legalizes low-THC (less than 0.3% THC) hemp and hemp-derived products such as cannabidiol (CBD) at the federal level. 

  • The bill also entirely removed or “de-scheduled” low-THC cannabis products from the Controlled Substances Act, which had been listed as Schedule I drugs since the CSA’s inception in 1970.

2020 – In November 2020, four states voted to legalize recreational marijuana via ballot measures: Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. 

  • South Dakota’s legalization amendment was subsequently overturned in court.
  • Notably, South Dakota would have become the first state to legalize recreational use without legalizing medical use and became the first state to overturn a legalization referendum. 
  • With these approvals, recreational cannabis became legal in 14 states.

2020 – On December 4, 2020, the House of Representatives voted 228–164 to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.

  • Included in the act were provisions to legalize cannabis at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, expunging cannabis offenses for non-violent offenders, and imposing a federal tax on cannabis products (which would be used to fund vital justice programs).
  • Before the vote, neither chamber of Congress had voted on a cannabis legalization bill before.

The Future of Cannabis Reform

On March 31, 2021, Governor Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), which legalized adult-use cannabis in New York. 

  • This legislation created a new Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) controlled by a Cannabis Control Board that oversees and implements the law, issues licenses, and develops regulations for business in the cannabis industry. 

On July 14, 2021, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Cory Booker, and Senator Ron Wyden introduced a draft bill titled Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. 

  • The bill’s primary purpose is to de-schedule and decriminalize cannabis. 
  • ABC News stated that “This is the first time in history that senators from a major party have introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances.” 

We’ve come a long way from using cannabis to push political agenda striking unnecessary fear and attaching detrimental regulations onto it. However, we still have a ways to go. 

If you want to help join the fight to get cannabis in all its forms legalized, check out the following resources:

  • NORML – National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
  • MPP – Marijuana Policy Project
  • DPA – Drug Policy Alliance

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