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History of Weed - Decriminalization vs Legalization

  History of Weed


Decriminalization vs Legalization


As more states and municipalities (and dare I hope the country?) are looking at legalizing or at least decriminalizing the use of marijuana I think it is important to look at the history of marijuana and why it is illegal. is a great resource for straightforward brief facts and a bit of entertainment, and also the source of much of my information.  In the beginning, around 500 BC in Asia, marijuana was used as an herbal medicine. That seems to be pretty similar to how many view marijuana today, and it has only taken us a few years to come full circle to this way of thinking!  Early use in the United States dates back at least as far as Colonial America where hemp was grown for textiles and rope, and growing hemp was even a requirement in the early 1600’s in the colonies of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.  It wasn’t until the 1900’s when political and racial issues arose, leading to the criminalization of marijuana.

What happened then during the 1900’s that changed the way entire generations would look at the use of marijuana?  We had gone from a culture that used this plant for medicinal purposes and for a cheap and quick way to grow a material suitable for textiles, paper and a myriad of other uses to one where the use of marijuana was very stigmatized.  

During the early 1900’s the US had an influx of immigrants from Mexico that were looking to get away from the Mexican Revolution.  These immigrants introduced recreational marijuana to Americans. The Great Depression brought about a time of uncertainty and unrest in the United States. We soon began to resent the Mexican immigrants and there was a growing fear of the ‘evil weed’.  There was such a growing fear that by 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana, and by 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act criminalized marijuana in the United States. Marijuana was largely hidden from the general population until the 1960’s when marijuana became more visible and popular among the ‘hippies’ and was often present at protests of the Vietnam War, at music festivals and marijuana also became popular among other alternative lifestyles.

The years pass and we are now at 1970 when, as part of the War on Drugs, President Nixon repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and signed the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.  This Act made marijuana a Schedule 1 drug meaning it has no use medically and had a high potential for abuse. While Nixon opposed the use of marijuana, a report on the subject was requested as part of the Controlled Substance Act.  One of the members of the committee was Raymond P. Shafer, a former prosecutor. Although the findings of the report explained that marijuana was relatively safe and the dangers of the drug exaggerated, Nixon did not make changes to the Controlled Substance Act. Shafer had reported

"A careful search of the literature and testimony of the nation's health officials has not revealed a single human fatality in the United States proven to have resulted solely from ingestion of marihuana. Experiments with the drug in monkeys demonstrated that the dose required for overdose death was enormous and for all practical purposes unachievable by humans smoking marihuana. This is in marked contrast to other substances in common use, most notably alcohol and barbiturate sleeping pills."

After Nixon’s resignation, many felt that we were on the path to legalization again.  Several states decriminalized with Oregon being the first, however other states were still unsure because of the strong stance the Nixon administration had on marijuana.  By the time Reagan was elected the war on drugs was in full swing with increased penalties for drug use.

The last few years we are hearing more about decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing it. What is the difference?  To decriminalize means that certain offenses do not result in jail time or a criminal record for the first time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. This makes possession like a civil infraction, possibly resulting in fines.  Legalizing, however, means that the laws banning the possession and use of marijuana would be abolished which then allows the government to tax and regulate its use. Thirteen states have decriminalized the use of marijuana and 9 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized personal marijuana use.  In addition, many states allow for the medical use of marijuana.

The Cole Memo, published under the Obama administration in 2103, listed only eight areas that prosecutors and law officials should focus on, including distribution to minors, preventing revenue from going to criminal enterprises, preventing the diversion from one legal state to one which is not, preventing legal marijuana activity from being used as a cover for trafficking of other illegal drugs, preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, preventing drugged driving, preventing growing marijuana on public land, and preventing marijuana possession or use on federal land.  This new memo left the states with greater latitude when legalizing marijuana.

The Cole Memo stayed in effect until January of this year when Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, rescinded it.  This left the states that had legalized marijuana with many questions and no answers.

To help combat the ambiguity and uncertainty the states face, on April 20, US Senator Chuck Schumer introduced a bill that would allow states to decide whether to make marijuana available commercially.  The bill would also allow the federal government to regulate marijuana advertising the same as it does alcohol and tobacco.

“The time for decriminalization has come, and I hope we can move the ball forward on this,” Schumer said “The time has come to decriminalize marijuana,” Schumer said. “My thinking — as well as the general population’s views — on the issue has evolved, and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

The ambiguity that is present could lead to some issues with other states as they move toward legalization.  We hope that others see this issue as Schumer does and believe that it is the right time to do the right thing.


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Connie Maxim-Sparrow