Cannabis Legalization in America

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To understand where cannabis is going, we first must understand the history of legalization in the U.S. To begin here is an important, but generally unheard-of quote from the 1980s Chief Administrative Law Judge for the DEA, Francis Young:

“Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. The provisions of the Controlled Substances Act permit & require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious, for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.”

Understanding the history of cannabis helps every individual, as well as community, make educated decisions when addressing obstacles that have been in place for decades. In order to move forward with cannabis legalization, the industry must understand its history in the U.S.

HIV/AIDS came in the 1980s, and with little to no attention from the federal government, in terms of care or a cure, a healthcare epidemic was occurring and by the 1990s the gay population specifically in San Francisco was most notably impacted. Dennis Perón a leader in the legalization of cannabis in the 1990s from San Francisco and “Brownie” Mary Rathburn, a hero of the cannabis movement, created a metaphoric perfect storm that led to the first state-level law passed, The Compassionate Use Act California PROP 215, allowing the use of medical cannabis in 1996. Although cannabis was legal in California, the federal government attempted to go after doctors who prescribed cannabis. Organizations like Americans for Safe Access in Oakland, California founded by Steph Sherer an organization that to this day remains the largest patient advocacy organization for medical cannabis and NORML has provided a voice in the public policy debate for those Americans who oppose marijuana prohibition and in favor of removing cannabis from Schedule 1 drug list.

Cannabis is recognized by the federal government as a Schedule 1 drug which by definition has no medical benefits whatsoever, yet every state has its own set of medical cannabis laws making it very difficult to study cannabis. Our modern-day understanding of medical cannabis has been extremely slowed by man-made laws and just now we are starting to embrace cannabis as a medical area of study.

Is history repeating itself?

Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report revealed that police arrested 545,602 people for cannabis-related crimes in 2019. Black Indigenous People of Color (“BIPOC”) are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession even though consuming about the same rate. As of July 2022, 38 states have legalized the medical use of cannabis to varying degrees, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. As Social Equity is being rewarded to those affected by the War on Drugs, there is still much work to do in the efforts to release those still incarcerated for cannabis. Understanding the history of cannabis legalization is only one step toward liberation, but also supporting organizations like Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform, support and inspires the cannabis community by providing a space to get involved with the cannabis justice movement.

History looks to be manifesting itself in a similar form of prohibition, but in the shape of capitalism. So, the answer to legalization in the U.S. is first educating oneself on the history of cannabis prohibition in the U.S. and secondly, supporting local, as well as state, initiatives focused on ending cannabis prohibition. The evolution of cannabis legalization is a far cry from the vision Dennis Perón and “Brownie” Mary had and it was no surprise that once cannabis became legal it was going to be vulnerable to capitalism, but it’s important to the legacy of those who paved the way for the future of cannabis that we combat these obstacles with education and understanding that those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.

Timeline of cannabis policy reform in MA

Massachusetts has been looked at as a state that has so far done better in having cannabis regulations in place, with a social equity program that has also been successful. While the MA market is far from being perfect, it has taken major steps in the social equity aspect to even out the playing field. Just recently, Governor Charlie Baker signed cannabis legislation reform that will be having a major immediate effect on how cannabis establishment owners proceed in regard to Host Community Agreement entered into with their host municipality. Below is a timeline on legalization within the state:

  • 2008 — Voters approved a ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis.
  • 2012 — Voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical cannabis for patients suffering from serious health issues. For more information on the state’s medical cannabis program.
  • 2016 — Voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis for adults and establishing a regulated cannabis market. The initiative took effect on December 15, eliminating penalties for limited possession and cultivation for adults’ use.
  • 2017 — The legislature voted to delay implementation by six months, pushing the advent of legal retail sales forward from January 1, 2018, to July 1, 2018. Legislators then began working on changes to the initiative. The House passed a bad bill that would have made major changes to the law, but MPP and its allies fought back and persuaded the Senate to defend the will of voters. The implementation law that ultimately passed kept most of the initiative intact, and Gov. Baker signed it into law.
  • 2018 — The first two adult-use retail stores opened for businesses on November 20, 2018.
  • 2022 ___ Massachusetts: Governor Signs Bill Creating “Social Equity Trust Fund” For Aspiring Marijuana Businesses.

Benefit and Disadvantage

The benefit is we can learn from history and use it as a tool when confronted with obstacles and barriers. The disadvantage is if cannabis advocates are not active and vocal with policymakers by holding local as well as state officials accountable capitalism will dismantle the foundation those before us built.

All too often I find myself with the will to take initiative in support of cannabis legalization but fall short on where to begin, using history as a tool of education provides guidance on where to begin. Here are a few links I found helpful on my journey to support cannabis legalization in the U.S. and visit to learn more.

Marijuana Policy Project



Read more here.


Photo Credit. 

Anthony Pena
Project Management Coordinator Intern

Anthony was born in Bronx, NY. He grew up with the indelible mindset that an individual only deserves what he or she works for and a person was only as good as their word. It would be no surprise that with solid core values to guide Anthony that a young “Canasuer” would excel at literally any venture he pursued.

Intrigued by music, he saw the one-time student of legacy cannabis go on to excel as a top-rated hospitality and event promoter whose passion for hosting popular VIP events that connect politicians, chefs, doctors, influencers, athletes and creative artists with each other and would lead to him realizing his first dream of liberating and assisting those affected most by the War on Drugs. Convinced that legal marijuana can change the economic trajectory for people of color globally is why I work so tirelessly on the massive opportunities that the cannabis industry has to offer. As a catalyst for economic growth within the “black" and “brown" community is the badge of honor so proudly worn by a one of a kind human.