Global Prohibition Regime
Although levels of tolerance for cannabis vary widely worldwide, nearly every nation on earth is a party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which establishes uniform “schedules” for controlled substances—with our favorite herb in the most restrictive schedule. Nations have the right to establish their own enforcement policies, ostensibly in consultation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The US, with the most restrictive laws in the West, led the way in the development of this system. Opiates and cocaine are Schedule 2, for drugs with legitimate medical uses. Marijuana is Schedule 1—those supposedly without.
The first drug laws were blatantly linked to racism. In 1914, the Harrison Act brought opiates and cocaine under federal control, imposing high taxes meant to effectively ban the substances. Legislators played to fear of the "Yellow Peril," with lurid tales of white women becoming addicted and shacking up with "Chinamen." The Treasury Department launched a new Narcotics Division.
In 1915 California passed the first state law against cannabis. Numerous other states followed—with the press campaign this time playing to anti-Mexican racism.
In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger, head of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), launched a crusade for a federal marijuana law. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act passed after a high-pressure propaganda campaign personally directed by Anslinger—who linked marijuana to adolescent axe-murderers, with propaganda articles produced by Anslinger’s FBN carrying names like “Youth Gone Loco” and “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth.” With high taxes imposed, and the “tax stamps” basically unavailable, cannabis was de facto illegal. The 1947 Boggs Act imposed criminal penalties for possession.
In 1961, Anslinger's campaign to have the US prohibition regime imposed worldwide succeeded with the UN’s adoption of the Single Convention, establishing internationally-recognized “schedules” for drugs. Harry Anslinger, his work done, finally retired.
In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which adopted the schedule system as US law. Simultaneously, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded to advocate for tokers’ rights.
In 1972, the Protocol to the Single Convention was adopted by UN, standardizing extradition procedures for drug offenses. In 1973, President Richard Nixon launched the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with worldwide operations. This replaced Anslinger's old FBN, but now with a much bigger budget and under the Justice Department.
The Decriminalization Movement
Simultaneously, however, Oregon decriminalized—the first state to remove criminal penalties for possession of personal quantities of cannabis. In 1975, Alaska passed the country’s most liberal decrim law, even allowing growing of small quantities.
In 1976, New York decriminalized, overturning the harsh Rockefeller Laws where personal quantities of marijuana are concerned (although draconian provisions for cocaine and heroin would remain intact until 2009). Jimmy Carter supported decrim on the campaign trail, but failed to support federal decrim legislation once in the White House. In 1978, the DEA began aiding Mexican police in spraying marijuana crops with the defoliant paraquat.
The Empire Strikes Back
Things got rapidly worse in the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan revived the Nixonian phrase "War on Drugs" for a new era. In 1986, as crack hysteria hits media, the Omnibus Drug Act toughened federal drug laws—further tightened two years later, instating mandatory minimum sentences for controlled substances. A wave of piss tests swept American workplaces. Meanwhile, the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics Drugs once again tightened the global prohibition regime.
Cannabis Culture Wars
In 1988, after a petition by NORML and two years of hearings, DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young, Jr. recommended to DEA administrator John Lawn that marijuana be reclassified to Schedule 2, to permit its medical use. Lawn over-ruled the recommendation, and his power to do so was upheld by the DC Court of Appeals in 1994.
In 1990, Alaska voters overturned their state’s decrim law in a referendum. In 1993, President Clinton had Attorney General Joycelyn Elders sacked for suggesting that drug legalization be studied.
In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, the historic initiative that instated the country's first medical marijuana law—in defiance of federal policy.
In 1997, Oregon voters collected enough signatures to force a referendum on a bill the state house passed to recriminalize cannabis, and succeeded in defeating it.
The Contemporary Struggle
Today, the US arrests some 1.8 million on drug charges annually—not quite 50% for pot violations, and 80% for mere possession (of pot or hard drugs). This compares with just over a half million for violent crimes. There are nearly 100,000 people in federal prisons for drug offenses, 50% of the total federal prison population, with 40,000 more in state and local prisons. Of the more than 2 million people in combined federal, state and local prisons, 60% are doing time on nonviolent drug offenses—including 10% for marijuana. There have been more than 20 million marijuana arrests in the United States since 1965.
Under federal law, possessing one marijuana cigarette or less is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and one year in prison, the same penalty as for possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. In one extreme case, attorney Edward Czuprynski of Michigan served 14 months in federal prison in 1992-3 for possession of 1.6 grams of marijuana—about enough for one fat joint—before a panel of federal appellate judges reviewed his case and demanded his immediate release. Cultivation of 100 marijuana plants or more carries a mandatory prison term of five years. Large scale marijuana cultivators and traffickers—meaning at least 60,000 plants or kilos—may actually be sentenced to death under an amendment to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. (The Drug Importer Death Penalty bill of 1997, which would have lowered the amount for capital punishment to kick in, fortunately failed to pass.)
Seventeen states have now decriminalized, to varying degrees: California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont—and Alaska, where courts struck down the state's recriminalization law on privacy grounds in 2003, effectively making it permissible to possess personal quantities again, although a new and less restrictive law passed in 2006 has been upheld by the state's courts. There is controversy over whether North Carolina's law counts as decrim, since its cut-off point is a half-ounce rather than the usual ounce. In 2012, Colorado and Washington voted to approve measures that actually legalize cannabis—within proscribed quantities, and under tight state regulation.
But don’t think pot use is free and safe in these states. Not only are the federal laws still in force (although this generally just affects dealers and growers), but public use can still technically get you arrested—and often does. So can (and does) cultivation.
Twenty states have passed medical marijuana laws either by legislation or referendum since California led the way with Prop 215 in 1996 (making for a total of 21): Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont. This generally allows for a medical defense for possession or cultivation of a quantity that varies from state to state. State and local law enforcement have not always honored the laws. (There is a big move to crack down on supposed abuses of the law in California now). The feds explicitly do not honor these laws. A 1998 voter-approved medical marijuana law in the District of Columbia was blocked by the US Congress until 2010.
Several other states have basically irrelevant laws passed in the '70s allowing participation in the federal medical marijuana program, which was extremely limited and shut down by the DEA years ago. Additionally, Utah recently passed a law allowing medical use of cannabis extracts that contain the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD, and other states seem set to follow. But this is also basically irrelevant, as CBD is not banned by the laws the prohibit herbaceous cannabis or its main psychoative cannabinoid, THC.