420 WEEK – The Story of Cannabis Legalization

The history of cannabis legalization in the united states

The history of cannabis legality has been a complex saga of changing perceptions and regulations. From an ancient, multifaceted herb to a controversial illegal substance, and finally towards a path of legalization, the narrative of cannabis reflects deep societal values and evolving laws.

It is hard to believe that in the US specifically, over 2/3 of states have legalized cannabis in some form, yet it remains illegal on the federal level with the likes of heroin and crystal meth. However, perceptions are changing, and understanding how far we have come can help fuel the fire within all of us to see our collective re-evaluation through.

The Path to Prohibition

Cannabis once held a valued place in many cultures for its varied uses, from medicinal applications to spiritual practices. In the United States, farmers were required by law to cultivate hemp during the 16th and 17th centuries. The War of 1812 was fought over hemp and trade disputes between Russia and England.

Until the introduction of the cotton gin in 1820s, 80% of textiles, fabrics and clothing were made from hemp. However, the 20th century marked a significant shift.

The International Opium Convention in 1925 initiated international controls, which were further tightened by the U.S.’s Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. These laws formed the backbone of global prohibition, severely restricting cannabis use and cultivation.

Thanks to government-funded and led disinformation campaigns, cannabis was renamed with the slang term “marijuana”, in an attempt to make it seem scary and foreign. They claimed cannabis turned certain racial groups into uncontrollable animals.

Even today, older generations are still prone to believe much of the false tales they were fed growing up about the dangers of cannabis. But that would change when the people started to stand up.

The Rise of Cannabis Legalization Activism

The tide began to turn with the rise of cannabis activism in the mid-20th century, influenced by a burgeoning counterculture that questioned authoritative norms and championed personal freedoms. The hippy movement of the late 60s and 70s would put cannabis at the forefront of progressive criminal justice reform.

This activism spurred decriminalization efforts in places like Oregon in 1973, which reduced penalties and acknowledged the excessively punitive nature of previous laws. The movement gained further momentum in the 1990s when California passed Proposition 215, allowing medical cannabis and setting a precedent for other states.

Towards Full Legalization

The new millennium has seen a radical shift with some regions embracing complete legalization. Uruguay broke new ground in 2013 as the first country to fully legalize cannabis, while states like Colorado in U.S. would start the trend of legalization. Several more states moved to legalize in the years following, establishing their regulatory frameworks to manage cannabis use and sales, which has helped model potential paths for others to follow.

Canada became the first North American country to fully legalize cannabis at the federal level in 2018, and in 2024, Germany became the first country in Europe to legalize and regulate cannabis. As legalization efforts shift from a local to global scale, the momentum is only going to increase.

Ongoing Challenges and the Future Landscape of Cannabis Legalization

Despite these advancements, legalization is fraught with challenges. In the U.S., conflicting state and federal laws create a patchwork of regulations. Internationally, legalization efforts often conflict with stringent drug treaties.

Looking ahead, the future of cannabis legalization looks positive. Economic incentives, changing consumer perceptions and tested regulatory frameworks have shown that legal cannabis industries can be successful.

Cannabis has traversed a tumultuous legal and social path, reflecting broader shifts in societal attitudes and governmental policies. As we continue to witness the evolution of cannabis laws, they not only change the status of the plant itself but also mirror our societal values related to freedom, health, and justice.