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Marijuana legalization is taking the world by storm—29 countries have decriminalized the possession or use of marijuana to some extent, with three countries (Netherlands, Uruguay and North Korea) adopting a regulated-but-legal approach. At home, two states have legalized recreational marijuana use, with another 23 states legalizing the use of medical marijuana.
Image courtesy Cannabis Culture
With more and more evidence showing that cannabis is not nearly as bad as America’s War on Drugs made it out to be, many nations and states have been moving towards a more progressive drug policy. Although we’re only starting to see larger scale social change in recent years, the fight for legalization has been going strong for decades. As the movement for legalization continues to push forward, it’s important to look back and recognize some of the more influential victories that have helped shape marijuana policy today.
— Marijuana Majority (@JoinTheMajority) April 28, 2015
The Shafer Commission
Image courtesy Maharepa
Without a doubt, when thinking about drug policy, President Nixon’s infamous declaration of the War on Drugs comes to mind. However, what’s often missing when talking about the War on Drugs in mainstream media is the mention of the bipartisan US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (better known as the ‘Shafer Commission’ after its chairman, Governer Raymond Shafer), composed of medical doctors, academics and government representatives. The 1972 commission, appointed by Nixon, was to research the issue of marijuana, and to make suggestions on public policy. The verdict of their report? The commission recommended that the marijuana should be decriminalized.
Despite the urge of the Shafer Commission, Nixon ultimately declined to take it into consideration, instead moving forward with the multi-billion dollar War on Drugs. However, the Shafer Commission’s report was far from fruitless—it would serve as a basis for eleven states, beginning with Oregon, to decriminalize the drug over the next two decades, and showed Americans that there might be an upside of marijuana decriminalization that hadn’t been discovered.
California Proposition 215
Image courtesy Jessica Wilson
Proposition 215, aka the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, made California the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The proposition allows for patients, along with their caregivers, who have received a recommendation by their physician, to possess and cultivate marijuana for the treatment of AIDS, cancer, migraines and other disorders. As the first medical marijuana proposition to be approved, the Compassionate Use Act led the way for voters in states like Oregon, Maine and Nevada to approve similar propositions shortly after.
Aside from simply being the first state to legalize the use of marijuana, Proposition 215 marked a shift in the way people perceived the drug—rather than a harmful substance ripe for abuse and addiction, the public now viewed marijuana as a form of treatment for severe, ailments. While still a far cry from the way the public perceives other behavior-changing, yet ‘safe’ drugs like alcohol, the shift has been significant enough to influence the way federal drug law is to be enforced. For example, in 2009, the US Attorney General said that raids on medical marijuana clinics were to cease, and that the Department of Justice will no longer prioritize the prosecution of legal medical marijuana patients.
Legalization in Uruguay
Image courtesy Eduardo Amorim
On July 31st, 2013, the Uruguayan House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize the production and sale of cannabis, becoming the first country to do so. This, along with the culture of tolerance in the Netherlands, has certainly influenced drug policy in the USA, particularly in states like Colorado and Washington where recreational use of marijuana is legal.
These international influences, combined with changing attitudes at home, are finally being reflected in American drug law. In 2013, the Department of Justice (which has been less than sympathetic to state marijuana laws in the past) stated that it would no longer interfere with state marijuana laws. In 2014, a new law took it a step further, banning the Justice Department from using funds against medical marijuana in states where it is deemed legal, while another law lifted a ban that prohibited banks to provide financial services to legal marijuana sellers.
The fight for legalization of marijuana in the US is far from over, but the movement is gaining steam. With legalization spreading throughout the country, it might be easy to assume that it’s only recently been successful. Every once in a while, it’s good to look back and see how past efforts have continually forged the path forward.