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A Complete History of Weed Legalization in the U.S.

The path to cannabis legalization in the United States has been a long process that has required the effort of many dedicated activists. Thankfully, times are changing, and more and more states are rethinking their positions on cannabis policy. Let’s take a look at how we got here.

Timeline for Cannabis Legalization in the U.S.

Early Decriminalization

1973: Oregon became the first state to decriminalize weed way back in the early 70s. The state reduced the penalty for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis from a criminal offense to a $100 fine.

1975-1978: Several states follow Oregon and decriminalize small amounts of weed.

Medical Marijuana Movement

1996: California passes Prop. 215 and becomes the first state to decriminalize cannabis for medicinal purposes. The AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco’s gay community particularly hard, which prompted a grassroots movement to provide medical cannabis to patients. As they tirelessly fought for legalization, heroes like Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary illegally provided cannabis to patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses. In 1991, Peron helped get a local ordinance passed, allowing San Franciscans to possess cannabis for medical use. The local law eventually led to California becoming the first state to legalize weed for medical use.

1998: Alaska, Oregon, and Washington follow California and legalize medical cannabis.

1999: Maine begins its legal medical marijuana program.

2000: Hawaii, Nevada, and Colorado all legalize medical cannabis.

2004: Vermont and Montana make weed legal for medical purposes.

2006: The state legislature of Rhode Island legalizes medical marijuana.

2007: Medical cannabis becomes legal in New Mexico.

2008: Michigan becomes a medical cannabis state, while Massachusetts opts to decriminalize.

2010: New Jersey and Arizona pass laws to legalize weed for medical reasons.

2011: Delaware joins the list of states with legalized medical cannabis.

2012: Connecticut becomes a medical cannabis state, and Rhode Island decriminalizes weed.

Beginning of Recreational Cannabis and Low-THC/High CBD Laws

2012: Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize weed for recreational use. Massachusetts shifts to a medical marijuana state.

2013: Vermont decriminalizes weed. New Hampshire and Illinois legalize medical cannabis.

2014: 2014 proved to be an important year for cannabis legislation. First, the federal government approved the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which forbids the Justice Department from interfering with medical cannabis laws passed by individual states. Second, Utah passed a low-THC/high-CBD law that set the stage for the 2018 Farm Bill. Several states followed with low-THC/high-CBD laws later in the year. Next, Missouri chose to decriminalize weed, while New York and Minnesota became medical marijuana states. Finally, Alaska and Oregon both legalized recreational cannabis.

2015: Delaware decriminalizes small amounts of weed, and Louisiana begins a limited medical marijuana program. Several other states pass low-THC/high-CBD legislation.

2016: The state legislature of Illinois decriminalizes weed. Ohio and Pennsylvania join the ranks of legal, medical cannabis states. Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota follow suit with ballot measures to legalize cannabis for medical use.

2017: New Hampshire opts for decriminalization, and Indiana follows with a low-THC/high-CBD law.

2018: Congress passed the landmark Farm Bill, which legalized cannabis and hemp-derived concentrates containing less than .3% THC. Vermont and Michigan legalize weed for recreational purposes. Oklahoma, Missouri, and Utah become legalized medical cannabis states.

2019: Illinois makes recreational cannabis legal. Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota decriminalize weed.

2020: The elections that took place in November of 2020 came with big wins for cannabis legalization. Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey legalized recreational cannabis for adult use. Mississippi approved medical cannabis laws, and Oregon decriminalized small amounts of all drugs.

States Where Cannabis is Still Illegal

Alabama

The southern state of Alabama maintains some of the toughest anti-cannabis laws. Possession of a small personal amount of weed counts as a misdemeanor, which could earn you up to a year in prison and a $6000 fine.

Selling cannabis in Alabama is a felony that could put you in jail for two years to life. Growing cannabis carries a mandatory two-year minimum sentence and a $30,000 fine. If you’re an herb lover, Alabama may not be such a sweet home after all.

Arkansas

Although Arkansas has limited medical cannabis legalization, possession of a small amount of weed is still a misdemeanor that carries a $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail. A second offense counts as a felony and may get you a $10,000 fine and up to a decade of prison time. Growing cannabis or possessing paraphernalia both carry similar penalties.

Indiana

Possession of a personal amount of weed in Indiana counts as a misdemeanor, which carries a $1,000 fine and 180 days in jail. The penalty increases to a $5,000 fine and up to a year in prison if you have a previous drug conviction.

If you get caught with five grams of hash, you’ll be charged with a felony and face a prison sentence of up to 2.5 years. If Indiana law enforcement even finds you where drug activity typically occurs, you could get slapped with a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Iowa

Simple possession in Iowa may result in a misdemeanor with fines up to $6,250 and up to two years in jail, depending on the number of times you’ve been caught with weed. However, Iowa does maintain an option to send chronic offenders to rehab instead of prison. Selling or growing less than 50 kilos is a felony offense with a five-year sentence and a $7,500 fine.

Kansas

In Kansas, possession of a personal quantity of marijuana is a misdemeanor that could result in six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Selling less than 25 grams of cannabis is considered a felony, which is punishable by a hefty $300,000 fine and up to 51 months of probation. Cultivating only four plants in Kansas is a felony and costs the same $300,000 fine and up to 83 months probation.

Kentucky

If you get unlucky in Kentucky, and the fuzz catches you with a small amount of weed, you’ll only pay a $250 fine, be charged with a misdemeanor, and spend 45 days in jail. However, growing up to five plants could get you a five-year trip to prison and a $10,000 fine if it’s your second offense.

Nebraska

Penalties are relatively lenient for possessing small amounts of cannabis in Nebraska. A first-time offender caught with less than one ounce will only be charged with a civil infraction and pay $300 in fines. However, stocking up isn’t a good idea in Nebraska. If law enforcement finds more than one pound in your possession, you’ll be charged with a felony and risk spending the next five years in jail.

South Carolina

The first time you get caught with less than one ounce of weed in South Carolina, you’ll pay a $200 fine and be inconvenienced by spending a month in the slammer. But if you commit the same offense a second time, you could spend up to a year in prison and pay a $2,000 fine. You may wind up in jail for five years with a felony conviction and a $5,000 fine selling even a tiny amount of cannabis.

South Dakota

As of July 21, 2021, you won’t face any penalty for possessing up to one ounce of weed in South Dakota. Until then, your personal stash could still count as a misdemeanor with penalties of a $2,000 fine and up to one year behind bars.

Tennessee

The mandatory fine for possessing up to ½ ounce of cannabis in Tennessee is $250. Violators also face up to one year of incarceration. Growing weed can get you a felony conviction, a $5,000 fine, and up to six years of jail time.

Texas

If you get caught with up to two ounces of cannabis in the Lone Star State, you could spend 180 days in prison and pay a $2,000 fine. Growing a small garden or selling seven grams or less carries the same penalty.

West Virginia

In West Virginia, possessing any amount of weed is a misdemeanor with a maximum $1,000 fine and a jail sentence of 90 days to six months. Selling cannabis is considered a felony and carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year plus a $15,000 fine.

Wisconsin

Possessing any amount of weed in Wisconsin is a misdemeanor for first-time offenders. People who violate the law a second time will be charged with a felony and given a penalty of a $10,000 fine and a stay of 3.5 years in the local prison system.

Updated February 8, 2021
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