History of Marijuana Policy in the USA: A Summary

History of Marijuana policy in the USA

Cannabis, or marijuana, has a complicated history in the US. It went from being a completely legal, widely used substance to being condemned by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Since then, this substance has experienced a whirlwind of policy changes. 

Marijuana is recreationally legal in the District of Columbia and 21 states as of 2022. Several more states allow it for medical purposes, and CBD products are now allowed on the federal level.

Understanding marijuana’s policy history can be challenging for those invested in its medical or recreational uses. Here’s a summary of the key points involved in the history of marijuana policy in the USA.

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The Beginning

Before 1937, marijuana was perfectly legal. Marijuana was frequently used for recreational and medical purposes. Many people used cannabis for various medical purposes throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. It was routinely prescribed by physicians and made its first appearance in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850

Concerns about marijuana usage began to arise as Mexican Immigrants fled to the US after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. They brought with them an increased recreational use of marijuana.

When the great depression hit in 1930, Americans became more resentful of immigrants, partially due to job instability, and this led to resentment of marijuana usage. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana. 

The ability to use marijuana became federally restricted in 1937 when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. This act only illegalized the recreational use of marijuana in principle, but virtually all medical and research testing ceased after this act was passed. In 1942, marijuana was dropped from the United States pharmacopeia.


Several changes in marijuana policy occurred between 1942-1970. After marijuana was dropped from the United States Pharmacopeia in 1942, more restrictions were placed on this substance. 

The Boggs act in 1952 and The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 passed harsh penalties for the possession and sale of marijuana products. Under these acts, first-time marijuana-related offenses carried a minimum sentence of 2-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.

Marijuana was then classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which put it in the same category as dangerous substances such as heroin. 

Schedule 1 drugs were said to have no medical purpose and had a high potential for abuse. Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 substance brought with it harsher penalties and a complete federal ban on the use or sale of this substance.

Due to its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, marijuana became extremely difficult for scientists and researchers to obtain for testing and studies. This effectively halted any progress in understanding marijuana’s medical benefits for decades.

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Despite marijuana’s Schedule 1 categorization, many activists pushed for the use of marijuana to be legalized. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana was established in 1970 and fought to help activists fight to legalize marijuana for medical use in their states.

Several amendments were passed between 1970-1996 that affected marijuana users. In 1990, the Solom-Lautenberg amendment was passed. This was publicly known as the “smoke a joint, lose your license” law. Many states enacted this law, which caused drug offenders to lose their license for a minimum of 6 months when caught. States that didn’t enact these laws faced a 5%, and later a 10%, cut on federal highway funding.

The first big win for medical cannabis came less than a decade later. California legalized the use of medical marijuana in 1996. This sparked a trend that lasts to the present day, with more states legalizing the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

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Holding marijuana leaf to sun


Once California legalized medical marijuana, more states began to do the same. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington legalized medical marijuana in 1998. Here’s a timeline of when other states in the US legalized the use of medical marijuana:

  • 1999: Maine
  • 2000: Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada
  • 2004: Montana, Vermont
  • 2006: Rhode Island
  • 2007: New Mexico
  • 2008: Michigan
  • 2010: Arizona, New Jersey, Washington D.C.
  • 2011: Delaware
  • 2012: Connecticut, Massachusetts
  • 2013: Illinois, New Hampshire
  • 2014: Maryland, Minnesota, New York
  • 2016: Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania

As more states began to pass laws legalizing the use of medical marijuana, concerns grew over whether the federal government would interfere with these laws. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment was signed into law in 2014. This amendment prevented the Justice Department from interfering with state laws regarding the use of medical marijuana. 

Another big win for cannabis products came about in 2018 with the 2018 Farm Bill. This decriminalized low-THC (containing less than 0.3% of THC) hemp-derived products at the federal level and removed them from their Schedule 1 classification. The result of this was CBD products became legal at the federal level.

Which States Allow The Recreational Use of Marijuana?

Several states allow the recreational use of marijuana as of 2022. In 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first two states to allow for the recreational use of marijuana. Nineteen total states have passed laws allowing marijuana to be used recreationally as of 2022, and here’s a timeline showing when these changes occurred:

  • 2012: Colorado, Washington
  • 2014: Alaska, Oregon, Washington D.C.
  • 2016: Maine, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, Nevada
  • 2018: Michigan
  • 2019: Illinois 
  • 2020: New Jersey, Montana, Arizona
  • 2021: New York, Virginia, New Mexico, Connecticut
  • 2022: Rhode Island

Maryland and Missouri just passed recreational use in the November 2022 midterm elections.

While marijuana has been legalized recreationally in all these states, not all have a system in place yet for selling recreational marijuana. 

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Is Marijuana Legal At The Federal Level?

Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. It’s still classified as a Schedule 1 substance under The Controlled Substances Act of 1970. There is talk from President Biden as of 2022 to look into this classification, but that may not change for quite some time.

Smoke Safe By Consulting A Cannabis Nurse

With marijuana becoming legalized for medical and recreational use throughout the US, more people are willing to try this substance to improve their health. Finding a trusted cannabis nurse will connect you with a medical professional who can help you find the best products for your needs.

Last Updated on September 1, 2023 by Megan Mbengue, BSN, RN, CHPN

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