A short (short) history of American pot reform

Colorado may be the first state to legalize and regulate the selling of marijuana for recreational use, but other parts of the U.S. began whittling away at anti-marijuana laws as early as the 1970s. While cannabis is still illegal under federal law—and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has the right to criminalize even medicinal uses of marijuana—legalization efforts have seen fits, starts, reversals and everything in between for over forty years. Here’s a quick rundown of the early years of pot reform and how some efforts led to today’s patchwork of rules and regulations. 1973: Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana, making small amounts of possession a civil crime punishable only by a fine and citation. An attempt to recriminalize marijuana died in 1995. 1973: The city of Berkeley, Calif. passed an ordinance forcing local law enforcement officers to seek clearance from the City Council before arresting people for cannabis-related crimes. The ordinance was later found in violation of city code and struck down by the Alameda County Superior Court. 1974: A successful voter referendum assured that possessing, using, giving away or even selling marijuana was a civil infraction only punishable by a small fine in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor voters rejected a 1983 referendum for stricter marijuana laws. In April 1990, 53 percent of voters agreed to slightly higher fines, but the offences remained civil infractions. British singer/songwriter Graham Nash’s 1974 hit “Prison Song” references the leniency of Ann Arbor’s marijuana law: “Kids in Texas smoking grass, Ten year sentence comes to pass, Misdemeanor in Ann Arbor, Ask the judges why?” 1975: Alaska removed penalties for possessing up to four ounces of marijuana; though selling or delivering it remained illegal. Ohio made possessing or cultivating less than 3.5 ounces (or giving a gift of .7 ounces) a minor misdemeanor that could lead to a small fine and a suspended driver’s license. Also in ‘75, Colorado began liberalizing its drug laws, making possession of less than an ounce subject only to a $100 fine. 1977: Madison, Wis. passed an ordinance in April 1977, making it legal to possess less than 112 grams of marijuana or 28 grams of cannabis. In 1997, Milwaukee followed suit—mayor John Norquist signed a measure making possession of less than 25 grams a municipal ordinance violation and in 2011, the city of La Crosse, Wis. allowed police officers to give first-time offenders possessing seven grams or less a ticket. 1979: Not satisfied with its loss in court, the city of Berkeley passed a second version of its marijuana ordinance declaring cannabis to be a low priority for local police officers. The rule also banned using funds to enforce cannabis statutes and made it legal to grow marijuana (and even to report theft to law enforcement).