What Was the First State to Legalize Marijuana for Recreational Use?


It seems that ‘patriotic’ Americans who are vehemently against cannabis don’t understand the herb’s place in U.S. history. For instance, there was the famous U.S. Federal Reserve $10 note in 1914 that depicted hemp farming! Medical preparations of weed were available in pharmacies in the middle of the 19th century.

Things began to change at the beginning of the 20th century, which ultimately led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Marijuana remained illegal in the United States for almost 60 years, until the state of California passed Proposition 215, which legalized medicinal cannabis in 1996. It took another 16 years for a state to legalize recreational weed, but when it happened, two states fought for the right; one of which ‘won’ by a matter of days!

Keep reading to find out how these states finally legalized the herb recreationally. First, let’s take a brief look at the lead up to prohibition, and its aftermath.

The Road to Perdition for Cannabis

Marijuana’s downfall probably began in the early 1900s when the government finally began regulating the sale of pharmaceuticals. Remember, this was an era where heroin and cocaine were prescribed as medicines! The word ‘poison’ began to be used for drugs not issued by a pharmacy.

While many states didn’t classify cannabis as a ‘poison,’ it became necessary to label it. This became law with the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. At this point, the government aimed to restrict the sale of all narcotics, including marijuana. It became necessary to receive a doctor’s prescription for these narcotics, so it effectively meant the end of recreational weed in some states.

Given its status as one of the country’s most weed-friendly states, it is ironic that California was the first to classify the herb as a poison thanks to the 1907 Poison Act. Massachusetts passed a law which meant residents needed a prescription for sales of Indian Hemp in 1911. By 1915, several states, including Utah and Vermont, had banned weed.

The influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States caused enormous tensions. These laborers smoked weed to relax after a hard day’s work. Anti-immigrant feeling swelled during the 1920s and reached boiling point after the Great Depression in 1929 when jobs became scarce, and Americans were angry at these immigrants who they believed were ‘stealing’ jobs.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established in 1930 and was led by Harry J. Anslinger. He used the tensions against the Mexicans to help fuel his drug war. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was passed, and it effectively made the transfer or possession of weed illegal in America on a federal level.

The Failed War on Drugs

Numerous politicians and presidents followed Anslinger by attempting their own wars on drugs. Weed was now illegal, but it wasn’t enough for some. The 1952 Boggs Act was designed to increase punishments on those caught selling or using weed. Four years later, the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 was implemented. At this point, being caught in possession of weed for the first time carried a minimum prison sentence of two years and a fine of up to $20,000! The maximum sentence was ten years!

These mandatory penalties remained in effect until Congress repealed them in 1970. While Leary v. United States was a victory for weed in 1969, it didn’t last long. The Supreme Court ruled that the 1937 act was unconstitutional. However, Congress simply passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The herb was classified as a Schedule I substance with no recognized medicinal value and a high risk of abuse.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was formed in 1973 and was a merger between two other agencies. The infamous three strikes law was introduced in the 1980s, and the Solomon-Lautenberg amendment of 1990 was a law that suspended a person’s driving license if they were found guilty of any drug crime.

Marijuana Activists Fight Back

The early 1970s was the nadir for weed; both in terms of severity of punishment, and public opinion. However, individual states began decriminalizing cannabis. Oregon was the first in 1973. The state reduced the penalty to a $100 fine for possession of up to an ounce. Several other states followed suit soon after.

California did so after a study revealed the negative economic impact of the existing stringent laws. Once the new decriminalization law went into effect, annual spending towards weed laws fell 74% in the Golden State! Pro-marijuana sentiment began to grow slowly but surely during the 1970s.

In 1978, the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act was passed in New Mexico. It recognized weed’s medicinal value. If activists thought it would lead to quick legalization, they were sorely mistaken. After Nebraska decriminalized weed in 1978, no other state followed suit for the rest of the 20thcentury.

1996 was a HUGE year in the modern history of marijuana in the United States. California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis throughout the state. Three more states followed in 1998, and by 2012, a host of other states introduced medical marijuana programs.

Recreational Weed Finally Arrives!

By 2010, marijuana’s momentum seemed almost unstoppable. It was inevitable that a state would finally allow recreational marijuana. The question was: Which state would it be?

Technically, it was Alaska, thanks to the state’s Supreme Court ruling on Ravin v. State in 1975. The court upheld the right to privacy as per the state’s constitution, which protects an adult’s right to use and possess a small stash of weed in their homes for personal use. Unfortunately, the ruling was overridden by a ballot initiative in 1990 that made the herb illegal once again.

In the end, Colorado and Washington shared the honor of being the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. The historic date was November 6, 2012. In Colorado, Amendment 64 was passed; while in Washington, it was Initiative 502. Both initiatives regulated marijuana, similarly to alcohol.

For example, you could possess an ounce of herb if you were aged 21+. Users were also subject to DUID laws similar to drunk driving laws. Colorado residents got the slightly better deal as they were also allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants. However, Washington state technically ‘won’ the race by adding the laws to the state constitution on December 6, 2012, four days before Colorado.

Residents of Denver could claim to have been the first to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2005, 54% of the city’s residents voted to allow possession of up to an ounce without penalty. However, state law meant it was still illegal at the time so Denver citizens could still be arrested for carrying pot.

The Snowball Effect

It was hoped that the actions of Colorado and Washington state voters would have a knock-on effect, just as it did when California legalized medicinal marijuana. The 2013 Cole Memo was issued to federal prosecutors. It outlined that federal intervention in states that have legalized marijuana should be limited.

Alaska and Oregon were the next states to legalize recreational marijuana with the passing of Ballot Measure 2, and Measure 91 respectively, in 2014. In the same year, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment became law. It requires annual approval, but it prevents the Justice Department from interfering in state medical cannabis laws.

At present, recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states plus Washington D.C. States that have implemented marijuana legality are reaping the rewards. For example, California’s medical marijuana market was estimated to be worth $3 billion in 2017. Market research leaders such as BDS Analytics project that the Golden State’s market will be worth $22 billion in 2022!

Final Thoughts – What Does the Future Hold for Recreational Marijuana?

Vermont made history in 2018 by being the first state to legalize recreational marijuana by state legislature instead of a ballot initiative. Curiously, while the state allows possession of up to an ounce, the new law had no provisions for sale! Indeed, there have been issues implementing the new weed laws in many states.

Marijuana legalization is one of the most important topics in America right now. The actions of our northern neighbors, Canada, has piled pressure on the U.S. Canada made cannabis federally legal in October 2018. It is possible that the lawmakers in this country are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach; analyzing Canada to see how the new legislation is working.

Public support for the legalization of the herb is at a record high level. As we all know, politicians like to cynically gauge public opinion before making any decision. Several more states will likely either legalize medicinal marijuana or upgrade their existing laws to allow the sale and purchase of recreational cannabis.

The chances of full legalization under the current administration are slim to none. There is, however, an excellent chance of at least full federal legalization for medicinal marijuana in the next decade or so. It is surely only a matter of time.