A History of Weed, Part IV: Adult-Use, Equity, What Comes Next?
Written By Zack Ruskin
How did we go from Prop 215 to an industry projected to top $70 billion in global sales by 2078? Find out in the fourth and final installment of our history series on weed.
Spinning the calendar back to 1996, the success of Prop 215 in California had established a new, albeit untested precedent in a decades’ long battle to reform federal cannabis prohibitions. With efforts to get marijuana rescheduled from its ultra-prohibitive Schedule I classification under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act languishing in court, activists in California instead opted to change things at the state level.
Fueled by grassroots support led in large part by advocates and patients aware of the benefits medical marijuana offered in relieving the symptoms of those suffering from AIDS, Prop 215 established California as the first state to ever approve a state-wide medical cannabis program. By 2000, a mere four years later, an additional seven states had already adopted similar policies.
All the while, the federal government was treading on very precarious territory. Armed and approved to unleash military-caliber crackdowns and busts in response to drug law violations, the years preceding the dawn of state-legal adult-use markets were fraught with raids on clubs, the destruction of countless plants, and the arrest of both providers and patients.
PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS
In 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an amendment aimed at stopping federal raids on medical marijuana patients. While the amendment was defeated by a vote of 273 to 152, that margin nonetheless represented a notable change in attitude from a 1998 House vote on a resolution to condemn state medical marijuana laws (approved 310-93).
The following year, another version of the bill — the seventh such effort to face the House — finally passed on a vote of 219 to 189. Known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, it represented a major turning point in the ability of state markets to operate without fear of federal reprisal.
Notably, over the course of less than a decade, the House had gone from voting overwhelmingly in favor of condemning states with medical marijuana laws to telling the DEA to stop conducting raids on those very same states.
This shift in support mirrored the public’s growing acceptance and interest in cannabis as well. Data from Pew Research shows that public support for legalizing pot in 1989 was a dismal 13%. By 1999, that number had grown to 31%. As of 2019, 67% — what equates to two-thirds of Americans — said they felt that the use of marijuana should be legal.
It was this confluence of progressive policy, rising public support, and a growing body of incontrovertible scientific evidence that would give way to the start of the era we find ourselves in today: the age of (state) legalization.
California may have taken the lead on medical marijuana, but in 2010, a proposition aimed at legalizing adult-use cannabis failed to win the support of voters. Then, in 2012, voters in both Colorado and Washington approved adult-use marijuana bills, setting the stage for Californians to do the same in 2016 with Prop 64.
For many, these collective victories represented a watershed moment in the fight to recognize cannabis as a plant of merit and value.
Two years prior to Prop 64 appearing on ballots, another move by the federal government further indicated that states with the proper regulations in place would not be subject to federal challenges. Issued in 2013 by President Obama’s Deputy Attorney General, James M. Cole, it came to be known simply as the Cole Memo.
By 2014, Colorado and Washington both had retail cannabis shops open and serving customers. California’s market got underway on January 1, 2018, and with it came a whole new array of concerns and priorities. Chief among them: equity and legal reparations for those targeted by harmful past drug policies.
For that reason, cities ranging from Oakland to Long Beach — to speak only of California — now have social equity programs in place.
What’s their purpose? To recognize and address the long-term impact that federal and state cannabis enforcement policies have had on low-income communities by “making legal cannabis business ownership and employment opportunities more accessible to low-income individuals and communities most impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.”
Essentially, before we can move on, these programs speak to the moral obligation we all share to address and repair, to whatever extent possible, the damage done by the war on drugs.
At the same time, the advent of state-legal cannabis markets have led to innovations that only a handful of years ago seemed utterly impossible. There are now cannabis companies trading on stock markets and esteemed universities like UCLA hosting cannabis research initiatives.
On top of that, cannabis is projected to be a $70 billion market by 2028. In 2021 alone, legal cannabis sales were projected to hit $24 billion. The result is a situation that remains in rapid flux, with sales booming but federal law prohibition still looming as a final hurdle to clear. Efforts on that front remain sluggish but ongoing.
In the interim, as of February 3, 2022, 37 states and four territories allow for the medical use of cannabis products, per the National Conference of State Legislators. Likewise, as of November 29, 2021, 18 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for nonmedical use.
Meanwhile, other countries have leapfrogged the U.S. in making cannabis legal nationwide. They include Uruguay (2013), Canada (2018), Malta (2021), and Luxembourg (2021). Mexico will soon join them too.
That’s the thing about history — it never stops being written. And when it comes to cannabis, there are many blank pages still ahead of us. What will fill them remains to be seen, but you now know the incredible backstory that’s led us to this moment.
Please read our article about signing a petition for a general pardon for anyone convicted of a federal marijuana offense.
Zack is a freelance cannabis and culture reporter. He served as San Francisco Weekly’s “Pacific Highs” columnist for six years, covering local equity programs, Bay Area cannabis news, and interviewing everyone from Willie Nelson to Rep. Barbara Lee. His other bylines include the San Francisco Chronicle, Leafly, California Leaf Magazine, The Nib, Vanity Fair, KQED, and Variety. Follow him on Twitter: @zackruskin.