History of Marijuana in the U.S.

Capitol hill building

The history of marijuana in the U.S. dates way back to the 1600s. Learn more about how public perception, legality, and usage of cannabis have changed in the United States since then!

Domestic Production: 1600-1890

The earliest recorded history of cannabis in America started in the 17th century when the production of hemp was encouraged for use in sails, clothing, and rope. These products were made with a mixture of shredded flowers and leaves from the hemp plant. Legislation in the Virginia Assembly dedicated that every farmer must grow hemp, and it was even allowed as legal tender in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

As we neared the end of the 19th century, marijuana and hemp were being marketed for their medicinal properties and sold in public pharmacies.

Cannabis Regulation: 1906

Once hemp and cannabis made it into the consumables market, the Pure Food & Drug Act required that any product with cannabis be clearly labeled. This is the first instance of FDA-style regulation in the history of marijuana in the U.S.

Recreational Use: 1920s

Marijuana leaf in the sun

At the end of the Mexican Revolution, the history of marijuana in the U.S. shows that immigrants began flooding the United States and introducing their own version of cannabis. Recreational use became much more common, and people began associating it negatively with Mexican immigrants. By the 1930s, fear and stigma were closely associated with marijuana, and it became a governmental concern that resulted in 29 states outlawing cannabis.

Criminalizing Weed: 1930s

Many studies linked marijuana use with crime and other social problems. Between the Uniform State Narcotic Act (pushed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) and the Marijuana Tax Act, the government effectively criminalized marijuana and restricted possession. 

A Small Victory for Hemp: 1940s

Hemp again became a necessity for parachutes, marine corsage, and military essentials, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a campaign that encouraged farmers to plant more hemp. This period of the history of cannabis in America ended with farmers harvesting over 375,000 acres of hemp.

More Regulation: 1950s

Congress in session

In the 1950s portion of the history of marijuana in the U.S., the government enacted more laws and stricter regulations to control marijuana. Federal laws in the form of the Boggs Act and the Narcotics Control Act specified mandatory sentences for many drug-related offenses. After these regulations, a first-offense possession charge had a minimum sentence of two years and a massive fine of $20,000 ($223,398 in today’s money)!

Marijuana Counterculture: 1960s

Around the 1960s, the general public attempted to influence the history of marijuana in the U.S. The use of cannabis became more prevalent in the white upper classes. New studies commissioned by the presidents of the era showed that marijuana wasn’t linked to violence, and it wasn’t a gateway to heavier drug use.

In an attempt to revolutionize the strict drug laws of the 50s, the FBN and the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs within the FDA merged into the Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs.

Repealing Mandatory Minimums: 1970s

As we continue exploring the history of cannabis in America, we come to a time when it was acknowledged that the stricter regulations of the 1950s failed. The mandatory minimum sentences hadn’t done anything to minimize or eliminate drug culture, and these sentences were often unfairly harsh.

It was at this point in the history of marijuana in the U.S. that America started to differentiate cannabis from other drugs. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention & Control Act recategorized marijuana and got rid of many mandatory federal sentences. Other significant changes for this time included:

  • Decriminalization of Cannabis in 11 States
  • Founding of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
  • Creation of the DEA
  • Founding of High Times Magazine

Unfortunately, not everyone was embracing marijuana during the 70s. A parent’s lobbying group started asking for more cannabis regulation and advocating against drug use by teenagers.

The War on Drugs: 1980s

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. It reinstituted mandatory sentences for marijuana-related crimes. This act, in tandem with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, started gauging penalties based on the amount of drugs involved. This was also the period for the three-strikes policy that allowed life sentences for repeat drug offenders.

Medical Marijuana Legalization: 1990s

The first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use was California when their voters passed Prop 215 in 1996. This was a major victory during the history of marijuana in the U.S. because it brought to light many ways in which cannabis helps patients with chronic and painful diseases, including AIDS, cancer, and arthritis. Sadly, marijuana is still illegal federally, which creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the national government.

The Second Wave: 2000s

 Growing and harvesting cannabis

It took several years, but in 2001 Nevada followed California in easing cannabis restrictions. They decriminalized cannabis — the first state to do so in over 20 years. Nevada was followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington DC, Maryland, and Missouri. In the late 2010s, a few other states followed, including Delaware, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Hawaii. 

While these states decriminalized cannabis, two other states actually legalized it! They made marijuana history in the U.S. Both Colorado and Washington made cannabis use fully legal for recreational and medicinal purposes. Currently, Alaska, Oregon, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington D.C. have all chosen to legalize marijuana. One standout state, Vermont, actually gained its legalization through legislature instead of ballot voting. Illinois quickly followed in Vermont's footsteps.

Today: 2020-2021

With four more states joining in with the legalization of cannabis, over half of the American states now allow cannabis use for recreational purposes, medicinal reasons, or both. In 2020, the House of Representatives approved the MORE Act in an attempt to pave the way towards the federal legalization of marijuana. By removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, we can expunge cannabis-based offenses and impose a federal tax to help fund much-needed programs.

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