The Long, Blazing History of the Fight to Legalize Weed

In honor of 4/20, we look back at the decades-long struggle to decriminalize marijuana.
April 20, 2016, 3:10pm
Image by Branislava Živić via Stocksy

When it comes to legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana in this country, a sea change has been underway for years.

Medical marijuana is legal in almost half of the United States. Just days ago, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana in that state, making it the 24th in the country to institute such a law since California first legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Today, marijuana is legal in four states—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, plus Washington DC—no medical ailment required. People over 21 can buy and possess weed, and it's taxed like alcohol. States like Washington and California have even created a government positions, often referred to as "weed czars," to oversee the implementation of new weed legislation. During a Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn last week, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a serious discussion over the merits of legalizing marijuana, a topic that would have been considered fringe and absurd 20 years ago.


How did we get here?

420 Rally in Colorado. Photo via Flickr user Cannabis Destiny

Marijuana's medicinal properties have been documented in the United States at least as far back as the 1850s, according to the medical reference book United States Pharmacopeia. It remained legal for medical use until Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which classified weed as a Schedule I controlled substance, a category that includes heroin and Psilocybin (aka, mushrooms). Drugs in the Schedule I category are distinguished by their "high potential for abuse" and have "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," according to the law.

A few years after the act was passed, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973, with the mission of combatting "an all-out global war on the drug menace." Rockefeller drug laws in New York—named for Governor Nelson Rockefeller—followed, establishing mandatory sentences of 15 years to life in prison for people caught even with small amounts of drugs, including marijuana.

Around the same time, an advocacy group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), started petitioning the government to make medical use legal again. In the 1980s, some states started allowing marijuana in supervised clinical trials.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use with the Compassionate Use Act. Years later, in the 2005 Supreme Court ruling, Gonzalez v. Raich, the court ruled that the California law didn't exempt people from federal prosecution; still, federal officials said they would not go after individual patients.

Despite the blatant conflict between federal and state laws on legalization, more and more states have adopted medical marijuana laws.


Medical use, legalization, and decriminalization are all distinct and separate categories. Medical use means you can use for a medical ailment with a doctor's prescription. Legalization means you can buy, and can't be arrested or convicted for, using marijuana, but you can still get arrested for selling it if you aren't following state laws. Decriminalization means a reduction in penalties: If you are caught with small amounts you won't be prosecuted or sent to jail. Right now, 20 states have decriminalization laws in place, some of which will go into effect in 2017.

A major factor in the push to decriminalize marijuana is the nation's large incarceration rate, a direct result of the costly War on Drugs started by Nixon. As of February 2016, 85,353 inmates—46.5 percent of the federal prison population—are in for drug offenses, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping offenses account for three percent of the prison population.

In 2014, there were nearly over 600,000 thousand arrests for marijuana possession in this country, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Those arrests made up 39.7 percent of all drug-related arrests for that year.

420 Rally participant in Colorado 2013. Photo via Flickr user Cannabis Destiny

"For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged but required to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety. I have made a break from that philosophy," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech at the end of his tenure under the Obama administration in 2013. Holder and the Department of Justice attempted to correct the draconian and overreaching sentencing laws of the drug war by not seeking lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Holder cited data that showed prosecutors pursued mandatory minimums in just over 51 percent of drug cases in 2014, a dramatic reduction from nearly 64 percent of such cases the year before. "While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mindset of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses. I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach such that it will endure for years to come," he said.


Earlier this year, Holder went even further, telling PBS that "we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate."

Even individuals and organizations that oppose legalization still often support decriminalization. One example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), opposes medical use of marijuana outside of federal regulation, but is in favor of decriminalizing the drug "so that penalties for marijuana-related offenses are reduced to lesser criminal charges or civil penalties," the Academy wrote in a policy statement earlier this year.

"Efforts to decriminalize marijuana should take place in conjunction with efforts to prevent marijuana use and promote early treatment of adolescents with marijuana use problems," the Academy added.

Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans say they have tried marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2013 national government survey reported that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, and 19.8 million Americans have used marijuana in the past month.

Morgan Fox, of the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization supporting decriminalization and marijuana reform, tells Broadly, "The next few years are likely going to see a lot of movement away from jailing people for marijuana. As more and more states decrease penalties for possession or make marijuana legal and regulated for adults, it becomes less defensible to continue saddling marijuana consumers with lifelong criminal records and the collateral consequences that come with them. Even legalization opponents should be able to see the insanity of arresting otherwise law-abiding people for using a substance that is safer than alcohol."