Cannabis is totally legal, dude! Wait... how did this happen again?

IT'S A LONG and sort of sad story. When I give presentations about marijuana laws, I sometimes start by saying something like, "For most of American history, cannabis was legal to grow and consume." This tends to get people's attention and it is also demonstrably true.

I recently learned that the first cannabis law on this continent was passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1619, more than 150 years before the American Revolutionary War. That law required every farmer to grow hemp, for use in rope, sails, and clothing. As our Congressman Earl Blumenauer is fond of pointing out, several of the early US presidents grew hemp.

The local practice of smoking high-THC cannabis as we know it now appeared in Texas border towns around 100 years ago. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants flooded into the US, and some of them smoked weed. For a little while there, marijuana was openly plentiful along the Texas border, advertised in markets and drugstores. Pot was even shipped in small packets by mail to customers in other states.

From that point through the 1930s, marijuana became associated in the public imagination with black and Latino migrant workers. This led to laws motivated by racism and xenophobia, and by 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana. Those laws were facilitated by campy propaganda and "research," linking marijuana to violence, crime, insanity, and addiction.

In 1935, Oregon passed the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act, a law designed to help states prosecute possession of certain drugs, including marijuana. The federal government took its first action two years later, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. That law was enacted over strong objections from the American Medical Association, and it resulted in marijuana being dropped from the US Pharmacopeia.

Marijuana's forbidden status was solidified under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic along with LSD and heroin, with a "high potential for abuse" and no safe dose. Nonetheless, a few states began to roll back penalties for marijuana use in the '70s. Oregon was first, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1973.

Nothing major happened until 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical marijuana. The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act passed two years later. We got licensed dispensaries in 2013, and after Measure 91 passed, we got recreational marijuana. Today, medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and recreational marijuana is legal in four states (as well as DC).

Marijuana will be federally legal soon—probably. If California goes recreational next year, that might be a tipping point. If a Democrat is elected president in 2016, that would help. And when it's all over, Oregon can claim that it has been a cannabis pioneer. And you can say you were there.