Will cannabis prohibition soon go up in smoke?
That’s the sentiment many took from President Joe Biden’s October 6th announcement: all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession would be pardoned.
This landmark executive action from the White House represents a huge shift in the federal government’s response to the substance. From total prohibition as “public enemy number one”, to progressive policy changes, proven economic pull and promised legalization, much has happened to Mary Jane over the last century.
So naturally, we decided to hash out the complicated legal history of marijuana in the United States — and its wide-reaching implications — in infographic form.
Keep reading for a timeline of U.S. cannabis laws, a map of weed legalization by state and data on racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, visualized.
Click to jump ahead:
- History of cannabis legalization in the U.S. [timeline infographic]
- A closer look at the contradictory history of marijuana in the U.S.
- Closer to legalization?
- Racial disparity in marijuana arrests
- Is the federal legalization of weed inevitable?
History of cannabis legalization in the U.S. [timeline infographic]
Expediting the review of cannabis’ scheduling under the Control Substance Act. Announcing blanket pardons for marijuana possession. Urging state Governors to follow suit.
Those aren’t the only things the Biden administration invoked in his October 6th statement. The 46th U.S. President also spoke to the historical roots and impact of marijuana prohibition, calling the carceral approach to drug policy an overall failure.
Indeed, weed’s legal status exists among a web of contradictions, thanks to political interests clashing with public opinions and academic insights. Take a look at this timeline of the history of marijuana in the United States to see what I mean:
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A closer look at the contradictory history of marijuana in the U.S.
The course of drug policy reform never did run smooth — a statement that certainly holds true when it comes to state vs. federal marijuana laws. While some live in areas where dispensaries have cropped up on every corner, others are still subject to harsh prison sentences and penalties.
To understand why, let’s take it back to the beginning…
Though cannabis use dates back to 8000 BCE, the hemp plant was largely an agricultural commodity until the early 19th century, when an influx of immigrants from the Global South brought recreational use to the American masses. (Is Vanity Fair pushing hashish candy on your bingo card?)
Closely associated with cheap Mexican labor, however, xenophobic attitudes soured public opinion of the drug. Media campaigns dubbed marijuana a “social menace”; fears over “Reefer Madness” took hold.
This culminated in 1937, when the Marijuana Tax Act was passed. The Act passed on a surcharge to users that required them to register with the government. This set the stage for the Boggs Act and Narcotics Control Act to surface a decade later, setting mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses.
But the 1960s brought about a new wave of acceptance. Improved racial equity and anti-war “hippies” challenged dominant ideals surrounding not only drugs, but authority. In an effort to combat this, Nixon’s campaign strategy was to make drugs “Public Enemy Number One” — the source of all social evils.
Thus, the War on Drugs began. Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1971 — a legal drug classification system that still persists to this day.
Lying in stark contradiction with expert opinions at the time, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I substance — a drug with no medical potential, and a high potential for abuse.
Despite this, 11 states decriminalized marijuana for personal use during the period of 1973-1978.
(Now for a quick sidebar…)
Decriminalization vs. legalization
You might wonder: what’s the difference between marijuana decriminalization and marijuana legalization?
Good question. While both terms contrast cannabis prohibition, they’re not exactly synonymous. So for easy reference, check out this comparison infographic.
As stated, marijuana legalization is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against the drug. Much like the present treatment of tobacco and alcohol, cannabis would be available for purchase and personal use by the general population.
Marijuana decriminalization, on the other hand, means removing the criminal sanctions and repercussions associated with possessing the drug. While still technically illegal, the legal system will not prosecute a person for possession. Instead, a penalty in the form civil fines, drug education or drug treatment may (or may not) be issued.
Alright, back to the story…
Closer to legalization?
Alas, the decriminalization trend of the 70s did not last. With increasing fears over youth cannabis use combining with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, public sentiments dipped once again in the 80s.
Under Reagan’s unprecedented expansion of the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing, drug incarcerations intensified. From 1980 to 1997, the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses rose from 50,000 to over 400,000.
This trend remained until the 1990s, when more progressive attitudes emerged and have so far held strong. Between 1990-2010, 13 states and territories made weed legal for medicinal use. A total of 38 states, including the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana.
Then in 2014, voters legalized recreational marijuana for the first time ever, in Colorado and Washington State. With legalization and the burgeoning cannabis industry driving tax revenue, job creation and real estate sales, it’s not hard to see why 17 other states have done the same.
Check out this choropleth map for an explanation ofmarijuana laws by state
But how have these laws impacted the people inside these states? And what can recent federal developments do about it?
Racial disparity in marijuana arrests
By now, most know the disproportionate impact law enforcement has on people of color (POC). The War on Drugs is one of the most compelling examples.
As Nixon’s lasting legacy, one that a top aide would later admit to being a total farce, the War On Drugs and the Controlled Substances Act set into motion decades-long disparities in drug enforcement.
Indeed, reports from the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) show that despite similar usage rates, Black individuals were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white people from 2000-2018.
So for posterity, we calculated the disparity in arrests during 2020 using the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer
Echoing the data from the ACLU’s reports, racial inequality re: cannabis policing abounds — even in states where it’s legal. Mass imprisonment and high barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities persist.
That’s why many take recent developments, and congress’ 2021 passing of the MORE Act — a bill that aims to deschedule marijuana at the federal level, expunge past convictions and establish a tax to reinvest in affected communities — as a tentative sign the tides are turning.
And while Biden’s pardon doesn’t right these wrongs (in fact, zero people are currently imprisoned due to federal cannabis laws), approximately 6,500 folks will regain civil liberties as a result.
Is the federal legalization of weed inevitable?
If history is anything to go off, it’s clear the road to federal legalization is anything but inevitable.
While Biden’s announcement and congress’ passing of the MORE Act are some of the most progressive steps federal drug policy has seen in decades, a ton of legal barriers lie in the way of any country-wide ruling.
For one, it’s not clear when (or if) the MORE Act will be taken up by the U.S. Senate. (Not to mention, the senate vote is split.) The upcoming midterm election results no doubt play a role too.
So, will Biden legalize weed? Only time will tell.
High time for change
Building on a long, complicated history of cannabis in the U.S., Biden’s executive order comes at a moment when public support for its legalization is at an all-time high.
Sure, it’s a strategic political move timed right before the midterms. But after decades of Draconian drug laws, surging prison populations and the devastating disparities that followed, many believe a new approach — one closer aligned to the recommendations of doctors and drug policy experts — is necessary.
So whether you’re a marijuana enthusiast or not, this timeline has made one thing certain: the legalization of weed is of budding political interest.
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