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The road to marijuana legalization has been long and winding in the United States. Following President Reagan’s “war on drugs,” the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 officially implemented a mandatory minimum sentencing for drug violations, including possession of cannabis. As arrest rates steadily ticked up, many states where forced to consider legalization—between 1980 and 2015 alone, the number of incarcerated people increased from around 500,000 to over 2.2 million. Today, the United States holds 21% of the world’s prisoners, but only 5% of the world population. According to a study conducted by the ACLU in 2010, marijuana arrests accounted for more than half of all drug arrests in America. And of that staggeringly high number of arrests, 88% were simply for possession, not intent to sell. From 2001 to 2010, police busted 7 million people for having pot, which roughly equates to the cops making a pot bust every 37 seconds. Needless to say, these statistics are staggering.

This spike in incarceration was disproportionately affecting men of color. Although studies have found that white and Black people use drugs at around the same rate, Black people are almost 6 times more likely to be arrested on any drug charge, and 3.73 times more likely for marijuana in particular…and that’s only taking into account national statistics. The 2010 ACLU study found that in Iowa, D.C., Minnesota, and Illinois, Black people are 7.5-8.5 times more likely to be arrested for having weed. The fight for legalization and decriminalization is not only a fight to have the freedom to use cannabis, but a fight for the freedom of all those unfairly imprisoned. 

In recent years, we’ve seen a push toward legalization. Over 50% of Americans support the decriminalization of marijuana, but the journey is far from over. Below is an abridged timeline of the legalization of weed in the United States: 

  • 1990s Five states (Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Maine) and D.C. became the first to pass comprehensive medical marijuana laws. 
  • 2000s Seven more joined; Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Rhode Island, New Mexico. Additionally, in 2003, Maryland reduced the penalty for medical use, but did not pass fully comprehensive laws. This law was expanded in 2014. In 2008, Michigan and Massachusetts approved ballot measures to decriminalize cannabis. 
  • Today medical usage of cannabis is legal in 33 states, D.C., and three U.S. territories (Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Recreational use is legalized in 11 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington), as well as D.C. 

Cannabis remains federally illegal in the United States, leaving it up to the states to decide whether or not to legalize its use. As of this fourth of July, it remains a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, a highly restricted category of drugs that have no accepted use, recreational or otherwise. Since the 70s, the removal from this category has been proposed repeatedly, but is always shot down by the argument that weed is too dangerous to be downgraded. As recently as 2019, a new case has been brought against the federal government asking for its rescheduling. 

While we do not know what the future holds for the freedom of marijuana usage, the trajectory looks hopeful. Out of the three states that still prohibit any usage of cannabis (Idaho, South Dakota and Nebraska), Nebraska has already decriminalized possession. As more and more research and education is done around the benefits of cannabis, there is more and more reason to reschedule this substance, allowing people the freedom to choose if & how to partake in its usage.