History of Marijuana Legalization and Decriminalization: Past, Present and Future

Marijuana’s long history in the United States of being misunderstood and misrepresented has brought many challenges in marijuana decriminalization across states. Currently, there are 15 states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and 12 states whose laws prohibit any use or sale of marijuana, even medically.

The Early Days

According to PBS Frontline, cannabis use was wide in the early days of America. Other imports slowly began to replace a hemp production boom in the mid-19th century, though marijuana itself was used in many medicinal products. Many suggest that people began to associate marijuana with Mexican immigrants and that xenophobia produced a fear of marijuana.

Depression Era to 1950s

This fear spurred on by resentment of Mexican immigrants brought about marijuana criminalization in the 1930s across 29 states. Despite the medical community reporting no negative behaviors associated with marijuana, legislators enacted mandatory criminal sentences against the sale or use of the drug in the 1950s.

Beginning of War on Drugs

Despite a more forgiving decade in the ‘70s when states loosened or even removed their marijuana laws, President Reagan tightened them in the 1980s. This War on Drugs era meant three strikes out for offenders, meaning if people were charged three times with a drug offense they would be sentenced to life imprisonment.

This federal oversight of marijuana laws brought about many tense standoffs between the federal government and state governments who sought to decriminalize marijuana. While many states have legalized marijuana for medical use, most have not decriminalized it or legalized recreational use completely.

Recent Legalization

In 2012, Washington was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana followed four days later by Colorado, which allowed for the sale of it to be taxed. The rewards of additional state revenue have inspired other states to do the same. Other US states followed legalizing recreational use of marijuana in this order: Alaska (2015), Oregon (2015), California (2016), Massachusetts (2016), Nevada (2017), Maine (2017), Vermont (2018), Michigan (2018), Illinois (2020) and Arizona (2020), Montana (2020), New Jersey (2021) and South Dakota (2021).

Future Legalization

Looking to the future, other states appear to lean towards legalization in the coming year. According to Motley Fool, three states in particular may legalize recreational use in 2021: New York, Virginia and Connecticut.






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