Cannabis flag at White House
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A Live Timeline of Cannabis Legalization

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The history of cannabis legalization has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. As a plant that was once so widely celebrated across the globe to being starkly demonized and regulated in most of the world, the role of cannabis in society has changed drastically over the centuries. 

While we’re finally beginning to see a positive change in terms of legalization or even just decriminalization, it’s important to recognize the path that cannabis has paved throughout history. Today, we’re taking a deep dive into a live timeline of cannabis legalization in the United States.


  • Cannabis was frequently utilized within ancient civilizations (Hemp as far back as 8000 B.C.).
  • In 1910, recreational cannabis use was introduced to the US.
  • Quickly, cannabis use was demonized primarily started by a film called Reefer Madness.
  • In 1937, cannabis was taxed and criminalized.
  • Over 60 years later, California made the landmark decision to legalize medical marijuana.
  • After 1996, 16 states followed and legalized medical marijuana.
  • In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana.
  • Today, 16 states and Washington DC have legalized recreational cannabis; 36 other states have legalized medical marijuana.

Before Common Era: Cannabis and The Ancient World

Let’s go back in time quite a bit. From Mesopotamia to ancient Mayan civilizations and Middle Eastern practices, history shows us that cannabis plants were heavily utilized for myriad reasons.

While many societies found textile use through hemp, helping them craft their clothing, paper, and tools, others found benefits in adding to their foods, drinks, or even smoking it. 

Before the Common Era, cannabis use was widespread, embraced, and simply beautiful. These plants were grown easily throughout the globe, creating a national commodity that civilizations thrived off of. 

Unfortunately, this all seemed to change once recreational cannabis use reached Western ideology in the 1900s. 

1910: The Introduction of Recreational Cannabis in The US

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that recreational cannabis use was truly introduced into the US. While smoking weed was somewhat common throughout South America, particularly in Mexico, this was not an idea that was widely brought up to Americans just yet. 

In 1910, Mexico was in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, and many citizens quickly found themselves seeking refuge from the war in the United States. When immigrating, some brought with them, what evidence has suspected to be, joints.

Joints were celebrated in the late 1800s, becoming popularized especially when mixed with tobacco. This idea was brought over to the US and, soon, the concept of enjoying cannabis recreationally was introduced. 

The Mid-1900’s: Regulation and Demonization

Shortly after this idea of rolling up and smoking weed hit the US, so did mass hysteria. In 1936, a popular filmmaker at the time produced a film titled Reefer Madness. In this, it depicted what could and would happen to those who smoked marijuana. 

Consequences of hit-and-runs, hallucinations, and even murders were said to be a result of smoking cannabis. As an absorbent, naive society, this ideology stuck in the US.

Quickly, cannabis use in any way was demonized, and many citizens of the States placed blame on Black and Mexican communities. Thus, the racialized injustices surrounding cannabis were born.

In 1937, the US government placed the first-ever ban on cannabis. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively taxed cannabis and criminalized it for sale, consumption, and possession. Except for a few elite society members with qualifying medical conditions, it was now largely illegal to enjoy the plant that was once so highly praised. 

Unfortunately, these rules and regulations seemed to embed themselves into US history, as it took decades for this demonization to even start to subside. 

1996: The Start of Legalization 

Finally, decades and decades after the plant was first introduced into Western society, the United States saw a shift of opinions.

In 1996, California became the first state in the country to legalize medical marijuana for people with qualifying conditions. This landmark decision was life-changing for some, but for many, this idea of change was tough. 

At first, the medical marijuana business was rocky. It was new, it had previously been completely illegal in California, and nobody knew what to expect. 

After months of trial runs and experimentation, and years of learning what works and what doesn’t, medical marijuana finally started thriving in the state. Soon, everybody was traveling to California to get a taste of legal weed if they could.

1998-2012: A Change of Heart

Though it took longer than US citizens may have liked, California got the ball rolling for cannabis legalization across the United States– and not just medicinal cannabis, either. 

Just two years later, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington all followed suit and legalized medical cannabis, as well.

In fact, from 1998 to 2012, the United States saw Maine, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Michigan, New Jersey, Arizona, Delaware, and Connecticut legalize the use of medical cannabis for those with qualifying medical conditions.

It was clear that this was a decade of change. But, progress didn’t stop there. 

In 2012, Colorado and Washington made the revolutionary decision to legalize recreational cannabis. This was the start of a major change of heart across the country. 

2012-Today: The Surge of Recreational Cannabis

Once cannabis had been recreationally legalized in both Colorado and Washington, and people still weren’t jumping out of windows because of a joint, the plant started getting taken more seriously.

Quickly, people were realizing firsthand the benefits that this plant could bring, especially when it was more accessible. 

Since then, states have either legalized recreational or medical cannabis, leaving only a handful of states to have strict, criminalized cannabis laws.

This surge of recreational cannabis legalization has been transformative, not only for US citizens, but for the states themselves, too. Once this legalization ball started rolling, it’s become impossible to stop, and the benefits are only becoming clearer.

The Future of Cannabis Legalization

The future of cannabis legalization for the remaining states is still up in the air. However, the country is experiencing a shift in mood towards this type of consumption. 

While it is still demonized by some, as the Reefer Madness film hangs in the back of their mind, many are discovering that legalized cannabis is so much more than just a flower to smoke.

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