Op-Ed: How Far Cannabis Legalization Has Come This Decade

Ten years ago, you couldn’t buy recreational cannabis in the U.S. It’s now legal in 10 states plus Washington, D.C., for people 21 and older. Here’s how far cannabis legalization has come this decade.

A decade ago, there wasn’t a single state in the country where you could buy recreational cannabis. Today — in 10 states, plus Washington D.C., the purchase and use of cannabis is available.

In 34 states, people with certain medical conditions can access legal medical cannabis. Two entire countries have legalized cannabis, and a bill was just passed by a House committee that would federally legalize weed in the U.S.

With so many changes in the last decade, we made a rundown of how far cannabis legalization has come.

California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis with Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996. After that, states like Oregon and Washington quickly followed suit. States began sporadically legalizing medical cannabis prior to 2010, but that’s when legalization measures really began to pick up. And the next 10 years gave us not only more states with medical weed, but many with recreational use laws.


In 2010, Arizona, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. all passed comprehensive medical cannabis legislation. In the years following, 18 more states would follow suit.


In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize weed for recreational use. The first recreational cannabis sale happened in Colorado on January 1, 2014 when Iraq war veteran Sean Azzariti bought an eighth of Bubba Kush for a total of $70.20, $10.46 of which was tax.


In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize weed. Uruguay’s government hoped that by moving cannabis to the legal market, it would take away a revenue stream from drug cartels. Since passing the law and implementing legal sales, crime rates in Uruguay have, as a whole, declined. This decline is partially due to the fact that Uruguay’s legal weed prices remain competitive with black market prices at around $1.40 per gram.

Legalization in Uruguay prompted U.S. banks to reach out to their Uruguayan counterparts, warning banks in Uruguay that if they do business with legal weed companies in the country, U.S. banks would stop doing business with them. An analyst with the Drug Policy Alliance said, “It is ironic that laws aimed at fighting drug trafficking and money laundering have created a roadblock for a system that intends to do just that. Uruguay is creating a legal market that displaces the illicit marijuana market.”The banking issue still hasn’t cleared up.

A huge shift for medical cannabis in the U.S. happened in 2013 when the CNN special “Weed” aired. It was the first time a documentary about the benefits of medical cannabis aired in primetime on a major television network. The show featured children with epilepsy who stopped having seizures because their parents were giving them CBD.

Cannabis, specifically CBD-rich cannabis, had won the hearts and minds of a good portion of the American public.


In 2014, Maryland, Minnesota, and New York legalized weed for medical purposes, and Alaska, Oregon, and D.C., all of which had already legalized medical cannabis, legalized it for recreational use.


In 2016, 10 states legalized cannabis, five for medical purposes: Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. And five for recreational purposes: California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont. Arizona also tried legalizing recreational weed via Proposition 205 in 2016, but the initiative failed to garner enough votes.

It’s important to note that all of these law changes didn’t just happen immediately. They were the result of hard-working activist groups such as NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, others lobbying politicians, and groups of “boots-on-the-ground” activists making waves in their communities by committing acts of civil disobedience and telling their personal stories to media outlets, politicians, and anyone else who would listen, of how cannabis helped them.

Many legalization advocates hoped that President Obama was going to make some kind of broad legalization executive order on his way out of office in 2016, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Donald Trump was elected president and a whole new problem arose: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, an Obama-era memo that recommended federal agencies don’t go after cannabis businesses in states where it’s been legalized. Thankfully, Sessions was largely unsuccessful in trying to make weed illegal again, but if nothing else, his charade is proof that prohibitionists are still very much alive and well in the United States.


In 2018, industrial hemp was legalized via the Farm Bill, effectively legalizing CBD nationwide. This created a huge green rush of entrepreneurs opening hemp-derived CBD businesses. People began selling everything from CBD-infused chai lattes to CBD-infused lotions and shampoos. Fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. even showed up at the table with a CBD-infused cheeseburger for 4/20.

Another huge event that year was Canada legalizing recreational cannabis, becoming the second country after Uruguay to do so. On October 17, 2018, Canadians aged 18 or older were permitted to legally purchase cannabis. Under the law, Canadians can possess up to 30 grams of weed and grow up to 4 plants at home.

The FDA has been dragging its feet in setting up a comprehensive framework for CBD regulation, but the agency put out a statement on November 25, 2019 warning that CBD can cause liver injury and can “affect the metabolism of other drugs,” so, what ultimately happens with CBD remains to be seen.

There have been some pitfalls, and there’s been nothing done to address the fact that people are still in prison in Canada for something that’s currently legal in the country, but legalization has been largely successful. In June 2019, Statistics Canada showed that Canada’s federal and provincial governments earned $140 million in tax revenue from cannabis sales in the first 5 ½ months of legalization.


In November 2019, in a first-of-its-kind vote, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee passed the MORE Act. The bill would remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances, allow states to set their own policies on cannabis, and expunge prior convictions for weed offenses. It would also set a 5% tax on cannabis products which would be used to set up programs to help people who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

As of December 13, 2019, the MORE Act is waiting on a full House vote, where it’s expected to pass, but its passage doesn’t look as promising in the Senate.

Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug in the world. According to the 2019 World Drug Report, it’s estimated that nearly 200 million people consume cannabis worldwide.

According to the ACLU, between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million people were arrested for cannabis, 88% of whom were arrested for simple possession. Despite nearly equal usage rates, Black people are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for weed.

With the decade ending in 2019, newly legalized states and federal legislation such as the MORE Act are beginning to put language in their legislation that aims to repair the damage done by the war on drugs.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, and there are many detractors. Although weed is legal in some form in more than a third of the country and more than 60% of Americans support it, legalization can’t be taken for granted, because there’s always another Jeff Sessions waiting in the wings to stomp out the flame.