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Looking Back on 25 Years of Cannabis Legalization

San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. (Illustration: ShutterstockProfessional / Shutterstock)

The past several years have been a whirlwind of progress for cannabis legalization — medically and recreationally and on a global level. To date, thirty-six U.S. states have established comprehensive medical cannabis programs. Globally, more than forty-two countries have created frameworks for medical use, and additional states and countries are on the cusp of joining the movement. Just as thousands of industry professionals were coming together in Las Vegas for an international trade show in October, news dropped that Costa Rica’s congress legalized medical use.

While it’s exhilarating to track and share the historic movement toward the end of prohibition, it’s also worth pausing to reflect on what got us here. And while it doesn’t escape me that many in the space are simply here to work and make money, it’s also true that many of us are advocates and part of the cannabis … not just the cannabis industry. I’m one of those people, an advocate pushing for an end to century-long stigmas fueled by foul politics and false Hollywood characterizations. The stories about where the modern-day medical cannabis movement began remind me that we can all do our part in changing the minds of the masses about this miracle plant.

A shift toward decriminalization

Several states had relaxed their laws regarding marijuana after the famed “Summer of Love.” Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis in 1973, reducing the penalty for possessing up to an ounce to a $100 fine. Other states followed suit in 1975: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, and Ohio. Later, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, and North Carolina got on board. NORML played a big role in the movement by lobbying and supporting legislation to steer laws away from the criminalization position adopted during the administration of President Richard Nixon.

San Francisco’s Proposition P

In the late 1970s, New Mexico became the first state to attempt to legalize medical marijuana. More than thirty additional states joined the effort in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, federal law and politics squashed the movement, leaving all abandoned by the mid-’80s. One market kept the momentum and saw eventual success by 1991: San Francisco.

The city was still reeling from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept the U.S. during the 1980s. Thanks in large part to people like activist Mary Jane Rathbun (aka Brownie Mary) and fellow cannabis movement legend Denis Peron (who advocated for cannabis to alleviate suffering among gay men afflicted with the virus), Proposition P passed with a phenomenal 79 percent support from voters. At last, the first medical cannabis program had launched. While many in the industry underwhelmed by this chapter in the cannabis legalization chronicles, it nonetheless was a tipping point for acceptance of cannabis for its medicinal value.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Proposition P’s passage. The cultural touchpoint should be celebrated by those benefiting from cannabis on every level.

California Proposition 215

In the years following Prop P, several cities around the Bay Area made similar shifts. Santa Cruz passed Measure A in November 1992, and Oakland passed resolutions in 1995. These changes in local laws and increasing acceptance of cannabis eventually fueled a watershed moment for the cannabis community.

On November 5, 1996, California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, aka Proposition 215, with 56 percent voting “yes.” This shift in legal status allowed cannabis use, possession, and cultivation by patients with a legitimate physician’s recommendation. In the beginning, qualifying conditions included HIV/AIDS, arthritis, anorexia, chronic pain, glaucoma, migraines, and the like. Subsequent legislation and regulations expanded the list.

It’s hard to believe the pivotal day was literally twenty-five years ago. As a Californian, I am honored to have been in the Bay Area for what was truly a historic day. While it took a few years for other states to catch up, California gets credit for living up to its reputation for challenging the status quo, especially in ways that topple taboos.

I would like to acknowledge friend and personal hero Keith Stroup for creating NORML way back in 1970. We got to celebrate the exemplary organization’s fortieth anniversary last year. He and the organization at large have been a true force in the cannabis community and the movement literally for decades. The next generation of NORML leaders continue to educate and motivate thousands of advocates and activists in this space. They are behind the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Prop 215 in San Francisco on November 5, 2021, when legends and industry leaders will come together for what promises to be a day and night to remember for years to come.

By Lance C. Lambert

Originally published at on November 5th, 2021.



mg Magazine is the leading trade journal for the US cannabis industry. Since 2015 it has provided readers with the news, market trends, and intelligence necessary to make informed business decisions.

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mg Magazine

mg is a monthly business magazine covering the recreational and medical cannabis business, meeting growing demand for business news and information.