A brief history of cannabis policy in the United States

A timeline from the 1937 tax act to now


Collegian | Falyn Sebastian

Paul Brull, Cannabis Director

The United States has a storied history when it comes to cannabis policy. With elections approaching, understanding where we are today can be more appreciated if we look to the past. The following article is a brief (and far from exhaustive) list of notable policy developments from the 1930s onward.

1937 – Marihuana Tax Act

This was the United States federal government’s first foray into cannabis regulation. This act required cannabis sellers, both domestic and foreign, to register their substance for sale and pay a fee. Violations were punishable by fines and up to five years of imprisonment. At the time, several states banned possession of the substance — notably including Texas. This effectively criminalized the sale, import and distribution of cannabis everywhere in the United States. 


1969 – Leary v. United States

This court case overturned the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, citing its requirements to self-incriminate. To comply with federal law, one had to incriminate themselves in state law. As such, the tax act violated the provision against self-incrimination in the Fifth Amendment. This arguably led to the passing of the Controlled Substances Act a year later.

1970 – Controlled Substances Act

The Controlled Substances Act kicked off the war on drugs, regulating several drugs including cannabis. It is listed as a Schedule 1 drug or the highest classification of drugs with “no medical use” along with other notable substances such as LSD and heroin. From the enactment of the policy through the 1980s, enforcement increased. There is more to be said on the creation and prominence of the act, but those understandings exist outside the scope of this article.

1990 – Solomon-Lautenberg amendment

The Solomon-Lautenberg amendment to the Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act extends federal highway funds to states and encourages states to revoke licenses for non-driving offenses, including cannabis possession and use. States can opt out while still receiving funding. Nine states did not opt out of regulation requirements.

1996 – California allows medical cannabis

Proposition 215 in California allowed primary care doctors and patients to grow and possess cannabis for personal use under doctor recommendation. This was the first step toward state legalization efforts for cannabis.

2012 – Colorado and Washington legalize recreational use

Colorado and Washington become the first states to legalize recreational cannabis usage and sale, with both states allowing citizens to purchase and possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis. Later, other states would follow similar models of legalization and regulation.

2013 – Cole Memorandum

This memorandum from the Department of Justice effectively authorized the continued state-led legalization of cannabis. The memo sets out Department of Justice priorities, which include the reduction of criminal distribution and sale to minors, among other things. Noting the need for state cooperation, the DOJ formally reneged on its duty to pursue state subversion of federal law, provided its priorities remained met in states that had legalized cannabis. 

2014 – Rohrabacher-Farr amendment

Passed in 2014, this amendment solidified some of the protections extended by the Cole Memo. It asserts that federal funds cannot be used to pursue cases against medical cannabis legalization, protecting legislatively what was historically protected executively.

2018 – DOJ retracts Cole Memo

In early 2018, Jeff Sessions retracted the Cole Memo in a new memorandum stating “previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately.” There were no subsequent rollbacks of cannabis legality in the states, and current DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland has emphasized that cannabis policy enforcement is not a priority. 

2022 – Where we are now

Currently, there are 18 states that only allow medical cannabis and 19 states with recreational and medical use. Some states have programs allowing for low levels of THC, which is the psychoactive component of cannabis; there are only three states with no policies allowing for cannabis access. The Biden administration has also signaled more openness to cannabis use and a desire to right the wrongs of the war on drugs.

By pardoning thousands for “simple marijuana possession” and calling for his administration to reevaluate cannabis classification in federal law, President Joe Biden’s actions indicate a hopeful trend toward policy openness. Notably, these pardons only apply to federal convictions, and no concrete policy has emerged from calls to reevaluate cannabis drug status.

Year after year, cannabis policy is changing, and our current acceptance of the drug is undoubtedly a far cry from the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 or near-ubiquitous acceptance of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

These changes are guided by our leaders, who face election in a few weeks, and our decisions in the ballot box will undoubtedly continue to shape cannabis policy going forward.

Reach Paul Brull at cannabis@collegian.com or on Twitter @csucollegian