Gone to Pot

With Washington state on the cusp of history, an abridged look back at how we got here

Whether you still think marijuana can turn people into crazed maniacs, Reefer Madness style, or you're about to use this very page as a rolling paper (bad idea), you've probably realized by now that we're at a major crossroads in marijuana history. As Washington becomes one of the first two states to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana, a national tidal wave is surging. For the first time since the polling firm started asking, Gallup reports that a majority of Americans say they support legalizing marijuana and nearly 40 percent say they've tried the drug. Twenty states have medical marijuana laws on the books, and this fall, a year after Washington voters passed Initiative 502, four cities in Michigan and Maine legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana. Earlier this month, lawmakers in Uruguay voted to legalize and regulate pot. This week, as the Washington State Liquor Control Board plans to close the application window for the state's first legal marijuana entrepreneurs, let's remember how far we've come. Consider this your cannabis CliffsNotes. (HG)

Around 2700 BP: Taking cannabis to the grave

Among the earliest known instances of the plant's use, cannabis was used to make paper or rope in ancient Asian civilizations. It was ground into flour and used in gruel; later, it was prescribed as medicine. But a tomb studied by researchers over the past decade suggests ancient civilizations may have been waking and baking too. Researchers tested a stash of plants they found buried with a well-off 45-year-old shaman in northern China, part of a roving clan of blue-eyed, light-skinned nomads near the Gobi Desert. Believed to be from around 2700 BP (that's Before Present, calculated as before 1950), the plants, lightly pounded in a wooden bowl and still surprisingly green, were cannabis. While ancient hemp clothing and rope have been found in the area, they've been dated to years after these plants were buried, leading the team to conclude in the Journal of Experimental Botany that, "The cannabis was presumably employed by this culture as a medicinal or psychoactive agent, or an aid to divination." (HG)

Aug. 2, 1619

Lawmakers in the colony of Virginia declare that every household with hemp seeds must grow them the following season.

July 4, 1776

The Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence, which was signed on paper made of hemp.

1700s: George Washington was growing fields of this stuff...

It's true that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cannabis plants in their fields. But it's not like they shared a blunt during breaks of the Continental Congress. The sort of cannabis they grew was hemp, which they harvested — with varying levels of financial success — for its oil, seeds and fibers, used to make rope, clothing and other old-timey goodies. It was considered a good supplement to tobacco farming, which could damage a farm's soil.

Industrial hemp was used widely in the United States until 1937, when Congress banned marijuana, which also extended to hemp. It remained legal to import processed hemp into the country, which American businesses continued to do. When imports of hemp and other useful fibers from Asia were cut off during World War II, the U.S. government released a short film in 1942 entitled Hemp for Victory, which instructed farmers how to plant and care for the crop in the hopes of making up for those lost imports. But as drug prohibition ramped up in the following decades, industrial hemp crops were eradicated from the country.

In 1998, Canada introduced regulations by which farmers could grow industrial hemp, a possible reason why seemingly every high schooler on the continent wore hemp necklaces that year. In 2011, the country's agriculture departments reported almost 40,000 acres of the plant.

Hemp production is still banned by federal law, but several states have passed laws legalizing industrial hemp. However, hemp farming has not become a reality in those states because the Drug Enforcement Administration has hampered such efforts. With Colorado legalizing marijuana in 2012, farmers in the state harvested their first crop of industrial hemp this year. (MB)

Early 1900s: Pot might make you kill people?

Americans weren't always terrified of cannabis. They had to be taught to be terrified through the first few decades of the 20th century. Cannabis had been used for medical and recreational purposes with little, if any, regulation up until the early 1900s, but few people were using weed, so nobody paid much attention.

But the Mexican revolution had sent immigrants north into the border states of the U.S. and they brought their pot with them. Over the next couple of decades, authorities in Texas, California and other border states characterized these immigrants' "marijuana" (the new, Spanish name for the drug) use as being responsible for violent crimes. At the same time, pot was arriving in port cities around the country by way of sailors and immigrants from the Caribbean, and the burgeoning jazz scene, comprised almost exclusively of African Americans, was getting in on the reefer, too. The racial thread seen here has not been lost on historians.

Harry J. Anslinger, the commissioner of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was an outspoken proponent of marijuana prohibition, often giving sensationalized speeches and articles in which he culled gruesome details from police reports, attributing these crimes to their perpetrator's use of marijuana. Newspapers around the country willfully bought into the notion of marijuana as a gateway to insanity and murder.

This sensationalism is best remembered in the form of the 1936 film Reefer Madness, in which seemingly ordinary young Americans become murderous psychopaths after a few puffs on a joint. The film was not widely circulated to mainstream audiences upon its release, but gained a cult following in the 1970s — as a comedy.

By 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, effectively making the drug illegal in the country.

There remains a racial element surrounding marijuana. A recently released American Civil Liberties Union study found that between 2001 and 2010, blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana as whites, despite the fact that the two groups use the drug at about the same rate. (MB)

Dec. 29, 1925

A news brief in the New York Times explains that Mexico has just outlawed marijuana, ending on this note: "Marihuana leaves, smoked in cigarettes, produce murderous delirium. Its addicts often become insane. Scientists say its effects are perhaps more terrible than those of any intoxicant or drug."


States across the country adopt tough penalties for marijuana possession and sale. In Georgia, a second conviction for selling marijuana to minors could result in the death penalty.

1970: "The most dangerous drugs of all"

America's journey from a love affair with hemp to a gripping fear of marijuana reached new heights with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. According the DEA, Schedule 1 drugs have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence."

The next year, President Richard Nixon called drug abuse "public enemy number one" and declared the need for a "new, all-out offensive." Spending on the drug war increased. Concerned parents formed anti-drug groups; Nancy Reagan launched her "Just Say No" campaign. And despite concerns in the '70s that they didn't work, the 1980s saw a return of mandatory minimum sentences, linking criminal punishments to the amount of drugs involved in an offense. Federal penalties for "trafficking" 100 marijuana plants became the same as those for 100 grams of heroin. (Other trademarks of the massive drug war, like "three strikes, you're out" laws and incentives for snitches, soon followed.)

In a 1986 speech, the Reagans stood in the West Hall of the White House, and the president counted his successes: Marijuana use among high school seniors had decreased from 1 in 14 to 1 in 20; meanwhile, the nation was spending triple what it had five years prior on the drug war.

"These are ... emerging signs that we can defeat this enemy," the president told the nation. "But we still have much to do." (HG)

March 22, 1972

Marijuana has become more socially acceptable among young people and increasingly among the middle class. Convened by President Richard Nixon, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse presents its report to national lawmakers calling for the country to reevaluate its views of marijuana and consider decriminalization.


Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession. Other states, like California, Colorado and New York, as well as the Netherlands, follow.


Willie Nelson is arrested for marijuana possession in Dallas, the first in a long string of arrests for America's favorite outlaw/country superstar/pothead. He's now on the advisory board of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.


Cheech and Chong's first feature-length movie, Up in Smoke, follows the super-stoned duo to Mexico to buy a van made entirely of marijuana.


L.A.'s police chief and school district launch Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), now taught in schools across the nation.

Aug. 16-17, 1991

What we now know as the massive pro-pot "protestival" Seattle Hempfest starts as Washington Hemp Expo in Seattle's Volunteer Park.

March 29, 1992

Meanwhile, the drug war continues, marijuana arrests increase and New York City cops focus on "quality of life" crimes, including pot. Loud condemnation of marijuana is becoming a new tactic for baby boomers to separate themselves from '60s hippie culture. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, famously says he "experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn't like it. I didn't inhale and I didn't try it again."

1998: The prescriptions for what ails you

Marijuana prohibition in Washington began to crumble in the late 1990s, most notably in 1998 when the state's voters made possession and use of cannabis for medical purposes legal. Initiative 692 passed by a convincing 58.97 percent of the vote, winning in all but nine counties, with 54 percent of Spokane County voters supporting it.

With Oregon passing a similar medical marijuana law that same year and California having done so two years prior, the entire West Coast had become medical-marijuana friendly. The trend would spread east over the next 15 years, to the point that now 20 states have some sort of allowance for medical marijuana, with Illinois and New Hampshire being the latest to join in this year.

Washington's medical marijuana laws have led to a lightly regulated and at times confusing system with plenty of gray area, especially when it came to medical marijuana dispensaries, which had at different times been shut down by the federal government.

Now with marijuana becoming legal for anyone over the age of 21, the state has had to re-evaluate its medical regulations. This fall, a multi-agency panel provided a list of recommendations to the Washington State Liquor Control Board — the agency overseeing the implementation of Initiative 502 — as to how to deal with medical marijuana in a landscape where the drug already will be widely available at state-supervised stores.

On the list were recommendations that the state create a database of medical marijuana cardholders who would be exempt from paying taxes on marijuana, that patients be re-evaluated, and to disallow medical groups from working primarily in the field of medical marijuana authorization. The panel also suggested that medical patients no longer be able to grow their own marijuana plants, and would drastically lower the amount of usable cannabis a cardholder could possess from 24 ounces to 3 ounces. (MB)

April 7, 2002

The Simpsons episode "Weekend at Burnsie's" airs, following Homer as he tries medical marijuana. Doctor's instructions: "Toke as needed."

October 2006

Illinois Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama distinguishes himself from Bill Clinton at a meeting of the American Society of Magazine Editors: "When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently. That was the point."


Nearly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. are for marijuana, up from 34 percent in 1995.

2012: Lighting up legally

Fast forward to what may be the most exciting time for marijuana since its discovery. Last December, under a night sky and the light of the Space Needle, Seattleites bundled in winter jackets and gathered to light up. The night marked the first phase of implementation of Initiative I-502: possession of an ounce or less by someone 21 or older was now legal in the state. (While it's never been legal under 502 to smoke in public, we all know things work a little differently on the west side, where Seattle police have all but ignored pot since 2003.)

And with that, the nation's eyes turned to Washington — and Colorado, where voters also legalized recreational bud — as state and local regulators began crafting and implementing the laws that would govern a newly above-board economy. This week, the window closes for applicants looking to take part, but unanswered questions remain. For one, how will marijuana businesses store their cash, since federally certified banks are unable to accept what's still considered illegal money?

Ask Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor who's written extensively on drug policy and consulted for the state on its new pot policies this year, about our chances of getting this whole thing right, and he'll start by rattling off the things he worries we're getting wrong. There are flaws in the law, he says, like too few protections against marketing to minors, too few training requirements for those selling pot, and a tax model that will drop as the price drops, which he says will increase the number of heavy users accessing the drug. But he believes the liquor board is prepared to adapt, and he calls Colorado and Washington "good places to have started" because they're more isolated than smaller states like those on the East Coast. (The Department of Justice has emphasized its worries about pot crossing state borders.) Plus, he adds, Washington "has that progressive-era, honest, competent public administration, and that matters."

"Whatever happens," Kleiman says confidently, "we're going to learn from the experiences in Washington and Colorado." (HG)

December 2012

After November's elections in Washington and Colorado, President Barack Obama tells ABC's Barbara Walters "we've got bigger fish to fry" than cracking down on states that have legalized marijuana.

March 27, 2013

With overwhelming support in both the state Senate and House, the Idaho Legislature voted to pass a resolution reaffirming its "opposition to efforts to legalize marijuana for any purpose in the State of Idaho."

Sept. 23, 2013

The Spokane City Council passes an ordinance to outline marijuana zoning. It will keep all new recreational and medical marijuana businesses out of certain mixed-use areas like Garland and allow them in industrial zones.

Dec. 10, 2013

Uruguay's Senate approves legislation to allow the legalization and state-run regulation of marijuana.

2014: Growing and Buying in the New Market

When it starts granting licenses in February or March of next year, the Washington State Liquor Control Board will start with growers and processors in hopes of creating a market able to meet the (who knows how high) demand for legal weed. Then the board will move on to licensing stores. While there will be no limit on the number of growers or processors licensed, each county in the state has been assigned a number of retailers allowed. (Spokane County will get 18.) There's no formal launch date when stores can open, but the board thinks we'll be shopping by the summer. The year is also likely to bring more moves to legalize. Oregon, for one, is already seeing an effort to get a 502-like initiative on the 2014 ballot. (HG)

Valleyfest @ Spokane Valley

Sun., Sept. 25
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About The Authors

Mike Bookey

Mike Bookey was the culture editor for The Inlander from 2012-2016. He previously held the same position at The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore.

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...