Criminalization & Decriminalization of Cannabis in California


November, 2016

The Cannabis 411 is a joint venture between Meadow and The Cannabis Conservancy. The series aims to take an in-depth look at issues surrounding Cannabis criminalization, decriminalization, commerce, cultivation, and consumption.

How legal bodies and decisions have moved the U.S. down the road from Cannabis Criminalization to Decriminalization during the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries. There is a special focus on California, as the state has been a trailblazer for Cannabis over the years.

Criminalization & Decriminalization Overview

From the California Poison Act Amendment to the formation of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), over the last 110 years a lot has changed regarding Cannabis regulation in the United States. Before the Drug War, marijuana was often treated as a misdemeanor by the California state government; however, in 1954—the early days of the War on Drugs set forth by the Nixon Administration, penalties for marijuana possession were increased to a minimum of 1-10 years in prison and sale of marijuana was made punishable by 5-15 years with a mandatory 3 years before eligibility for parole—having two prior felonies raised the maximum sentences for both offenses to life imprisonment.

The 20th century, particularly the first half, saw a sea change in government’s involvement in the products that people consumed. As the nascent industry took shape, Cannabis and other drugs were shuffled between acts and amendments by a variety of state and federal bureaus. After decades of shakedown, the U.S. Government placed Cannabis in the strictest possible federal category.  Nearly 50 years later, that is where it remains. Many states, including California, continue to craft new Cannabis laws that are a better fit for their health, safety, and economy. At present, any and all state laws that give any freedoms related to Cannabis are in violation of Federal law. With the passing of Proposition 19 in 1972, the decriminalization of marijuana gained considerable ground. Further, Senate Bills 95 and 1449 re-categorized possession as a citable misdemeanor instead of a possible felony.

This issue of the Cannabis 411 focuses on the legal bodies and decisions that have moved the U.S. down the road from Cannabis Criminalization to Decriminalization during the 20th and 21st centuries. There is a special focus on California, as the state has been a trailblazer for Cannabis over the years. Though California was the first Western state to criminalize Cannabis, the state has attempted decriminalization decades before the rest of the country, and has pioneered the way for compassionate care. In order to keep this brief, this issue does not touch on every single law, nor does it delve into the many implications surrounding these laws.

Chronological Timeline

The Pure Food and Drug Act – 1906

In 1906, the U.S. passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. In part a reaction to “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s exposé on the Chicago Meat Industry, as well as the fraudulent yet flourishing patent medicine industry, the Pure Food and Drug Act made labeling of all food and drugs mandatory for the first time.

Furthermore, the act mandated that any product containing one of 11 potentially habit-forming drugs must include the amount of that substance on the label. These drugs were acetanilide, alcohol, alpha or beta eucaine, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, chloroform, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and opium.

According to Thomas Szasz, author of “Our Right to Drugs”, the phrasing of the law tells us the government more or less accepted the existence of a market in drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and morphine.[1]

411-3Source: E.W. Kemble’s “Death Laboratory” 1906

The California Poison Act Amendment – 1913

In 1913, the California State Board of Pharmacy added “loco-weed” to the state’s Poison Act, effectively banning its sale. Many sources claim this was a legislative error.[2]

The Harrison Act – 1914

The Harrison Act levied a tax on anyone involved in the creation or movement of narcotics (specifically opium or coca products). The act originally excluded doctors, and did not explicitly include Cannabis; however, it is noteworthy for a few reasons: it is the first example of this sort of federal taxation, and paved the way for future prohibition, and it is an example of how frequently drugs were incorrectly classified in U.S. law. The Act was first enforced by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue.[3]

The California Poison Act Amendment – 1915

In 1915, California expanded on its Poison Act Amendment, banning non-prescription sale of “flowering tops and leaves, extracts, tinctures and other narcotic preparations of hemp or loco-weed (Cannabis sativa), Indian hemp”.[4]

Eighteenth Amendment – 1919

The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the production and distribution (though not consumption) of alcohol; it went into effect the following year.[5]

Narcotic Division – 1921

The Narcotic Division was formalized in the Federal Bureau of Internal Revenue in 1921. It is one of the earliest predecessors to the DEA.[6]

Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Tax –1922

The aptly named Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Tax banned the import and export of narcotics in the U.S. Like the Harrison Act, it only mentioned Opium and Coca, but was used as a stepping-stone for further Cannabis prohibition down the line—it led to the creation of the Federal Narcotics Control Board.[7]

California penalties increase – 1925–1929

As anti-narcotics sentiment hardened in California in the 1920s, so did penalties. Illegal sale, which had initially been a misdemeanor punishable by a $100-$400 fine and/or 50-180 days in jail for first offenders, became punishable by 6 months to 6 years in 1925. Possession, which had previously been treated the same as sales, became punishable by up to 6 years in prison. In 1927, the law against opium dens was finally extended to Indian hemp, as originally envisioned in the 1880 Walker bill. In 1929, second offenses for possession became punishable by sentences of 6 months – 10 years”[8]

Federal Bureau of Narcotics – 1930

Established in 1930, the Bureau of Narcotics was a merger of the Narcotics Division (1921) and the Federal Narcotics Control Board (1922). The Bureau was headed by Harry Anslinger, who played a key role in the U.S.’s increasingly stricter drug laws.[9] Mr. Anslinger has a troubled legacy. He is positively credited with dismantling many violent gangs throughout the country, and for running a successful government bureau on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression.[10]

However, Mr. Anslinger viewed Cannabis as the same, if not worse than, heroin, and would frequently give statements about cases of violence and insanity purportedly caused by Cannabis. With the inclusion of these embellished and apocryphal examples, Mr. Anslinger’s testimony often reads like the script of a racist and misogynistic propaganda film – and a poorly written one at that. Unfortunately, his lies about Cannabis are one of the longest lasting parts of his legacy.[11]

411-1Source: Green Flower

The Uniform State Narcotic Act – 1932

The Uniform State Narcotic Act expanded on the Harrison Act to impose greater fines on those in violation of drug laws. Another aim of this act was to encourage states to pass further legislation against drugs; California had already done so with its Poison Act Amendment.[12]

Twenty-first Amendment – 1933

The Twenty-First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, thus ending the country’s prohibition of alcohol.[13]

Reefer Madness Released – 1936

The propaganda film Reefer Madness was first released in 1936; it may be best understood by watching the trailer.[14]


The Marihuana Tax Act – 1937

While the basis of the Marihuana Tax Act was to simply tax the legal sale of Cannabis, the Act’s provisions were so expensive and extensive that it effectively rendered all Cannabis and its derivative products beyond the reach of any average citizen.[xv]

411-5Source: United States Customs and Border Patrol

Hemp for Victory – 1942

A film said to have been produced and released by the United States Department of Agriculture during World War II lauding the many uses, benefits and best procedures for growing hemp. The film encourages farmers to grow more hemp in support of the war efforts. [xvi]

La Guardia Committee Report on Marijuana – 1944

An investigation conducted by the New York Academy of Medicine concluding that the ingestion of marihuana did not markedly alter the subjects’ attitudes toward family and community ideologies as suspected and that marihuana is less dangerous than previously thought. [xvii]

Boggs Act – 1951

The Boggs Act imposed more serious sentences for drug convictions, including large fines and mandatory minimum sentences for first convictions.[xviii]

Narcotic Control Act – 1956

The Narcotic Control Act further expanded the fines and mandatory minimum sentences of the Boggs Act.[xix]

Federal Bureau of Drug Abuse Control – 1965

The Bureau, a DEA predecessor, was part of the Food and Drug Administration.[xx]

Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs – 1968

Part of the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was a merger of the Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control.[xxi]

Leary v. United States – 1969

In 1965, Dr. Timothy Leary was arrested for possession of Cannabis in Texas under the Marihuana Tax Act. He appealed this sentence, stating that the Act violated his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination; his case, Leary v. United States, reached the Supreme Court. In 1969, Leary won his case, as the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously deemed the Marihuana Tax Act unconstitutional. Dr. Leary’s name may be familiar from his work with other psychotropics, particularly the Harvard Psilocybin Study.[xxii] [xxiii]

Also in 1969, Leary ran for Governor of California against the incumbent Ronald Reagan. John Lennon penned “Come Together” for Leary’s campaign.[xxiv]

Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act – 1970

The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (CDAPCA) was enacted in 1970—“to amend the Public Health Service Act and other laws to provide increased research into, and prevention of, drug abuse and drug dependence; to provide for treatment and rehabilitation of drug abusers and drug dependent persons; and to strengthen existing law enforcement authority in the field of drug abuse.”[xxv]

Title II of the CDAPCA is known as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Up until this point, most drugs were lumped into one or more categories without much thought. It is the CSA which first separated drugs into different categories – or Schedules – based on their alleged danger vs. potential for beneficial medical use. Cannabis was placed in Schedule I of V. According to the original law, the findings required for Schedule I are:

  • “The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
  • The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
  • There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”

Cannabis is listed on Schedule I both by name (“Marihuana”) and chemical compound (“Tetrahydrocannabinols”). Up until this point, Cannabis was generally lumped in with opium and coca-derived products; however, according to this new scheduling, these drugs were allowed in the Schedule II category.[xxvi]

Of the 11 potentially dangerous drugs listed in the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, only Heroin and Cannabis were deemed Schedule I. The rest of those drugs either had some form that was listed in a less severe schedule (including cocaine, opium, and morphine), or they were not on the list at all. It is worth noting that the Attorney General has the power to increase or reduce the Schedule of a drug as new information comes to light.

Proposition 19 (The California Marijuana Initiative) – 1972

The first California ballot initiative aiming to decriminalize the personal use and cultivation of marijuana. The proposition failed with 66.5% ‘no’ votes and 35.5% ‘yes’ votes.[xxvii]

Drug Enforcement Administration – 1973

Created through an Executive Order by President Nixon, the DEA replaced the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Nixon wanted to “establish a single unified command to combat ‘an all-out global war on the drug menace.’”[xxviii]

Senate Bill 95 (SB95)– 1975

A bill enacted in July, 1975 making possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a citable misdemeanor instead of a possible felony.[xxix]

CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) – 1983

A cooperative program designed and maintained by the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement to eliminate large-scale marijuana cultivations in California posing a threat to the environment. [xxx] CAMP supplies funds and personnel aimed at diminishing the amount of marijuana that is grown in California, and provides assistance for prosecuting those persons arrested. [xxxi]

Comprehensive Crime Control Act – 1984

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act was a wide sweeping piece of legislation that included a steep increase in fines for a variety of quantities of Cannabis.[xxxii]

Anti-Drug Abuse Act – 1986

A law passed by the United States Congress establishing mandatory sentencing for drug-related crimes; whereby, possession of 100 plants of marijuana was subject to the same punishment of possession of 100 grams of heroin. [xxxiii]

Proposition 215 (Compassionate Use Act) – 1996

A California State initiative passed by 56% of voters permitting patients and their primary caregivers to possess and cultivate marijuana for a variety of ailments. [xxxiv] The law states that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician who has determined that the person’s health would benefit from the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief. [xxxv]


U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Club – 2001

In 1998, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, an organization formed to safely provide medical cannabis to very ill patients, was sued by the U.S. government; in effect, this suit claimed that Proposition 215, which had legalized medical Cannabis two years earlier, was in violation of the CDAPCA (Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act). The U.S. won this case, claiming, “There is no medical necessity exception to the Controlled Substances Act’s prohibitions on manufacturing and distributing marijuana.” [xxxvi]

California Senate Bill 420 (Medical Marijuana Program Act)– 2003

A bill passed by California legislature on September 11, 2003 mandating an identification card program that helps law enforcement properly identify qualified patients. [xxxvii]

Gonzales v. Raich – 2005

This case was brought to the Supreme Court by a medical patient in California who had their Cannabis seized by the DEA. The outcome of the case asserted that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution – which states the U.S. has power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes” – allows the federal government to continue to criminalize Cannabis, even when patients are following the proper state laws of medical consumption.[xxxviii]

California Senate Bill 1449 – 2010

California state law reducing the penalty of possession of one ounce of Cannabis from a misdemeanor to an infraction punishable by a $100 fine with no criminal record or mandated court appearance. Additionally, the law states that a fine of not more than two hundred fifty dollars ($250) shall be assessed, upon a finding that a first offense has been committed.[xxxix]

California Proposition 19 (Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act)- 2010

A ballot initiative in 2010 was rejected by voters in California, but since moved marijuana legalization into the mainstream of American politics. [xl]

California MMRSA/MCRSA (Medical Marijuana/Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act) – 2016

The new Medical Marijuana (now Cannabis) Regulation and Safety Act consists of three separate bills: AB 266, AB 243 and SB 643. The bill creates a comprehensive state licensing system for the commercial cultivation, manufacture, retail sale, transport, distribution, delivery, and testing of medical cannabis. The law went into effect on January 1, 2016; however, the state has said it will need until January 2018 to set up the necessary agencies, information systems, and regulations to actually begin issuing licenses. AB 266 establishes a new Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation designed to report the movement of commercial Cannabis and Cannabis products. SB 643 and AB 243 give the Department of Food and Agriculture responsibility for regulating cultivation. [xli][xlii]

California Proposition 64 (California Marijuana Legalization Initiative) – 2016

Also known as AUMA (Adult Use of Marijuana Act). Voters in California approved Prop 64—legalizing recreational marijuana in California and regulating consumption for adult consumers over 21 years of age.

Like similar initiatives in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, AUMA offers an important, if imperfect, step towards legalization. While AUMA is an unusually lengthy and complicated initiative with numerous restrictions and regulations (see a detailed analysis), its basic thrust would be to (1) legalize private adult use and possession of one ounce or less of marijuana; (2) legalize cultivation of up to six plants for personal use in a private, enclosed space; (3) reduce penalties for cultivation, sale, transport, and possession with intent to sell from mandatory felonies to misdemeanors in most cases; (4) allow prior offenders to petition the court for dismissal of charges that have been decriminalized; (5) legalize, license and regulate the commercial sales and production of marijuana for adult use along lines similar to the state’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act; and (6) allow on-site consumption in specifically licensed facilities, unlike previous initiatives in Colorado and elsewhere.[xliii]

Nationwide the tides continue to turn as California (56% approve), Nevada (54.5% approve), Massachusetts (53.5% approve) and Maine (50.3% approve) pass state laws regulating the adult use of Cannabis.

Currently the US is dotted with over half of the nation allowing medical use and more states allowing recreational use each year.

One day in the not so distant future we may very well see a national decriminalization and rescheduling as opposed to a patchwork of different laws governing our fragmented map.


The global dam of Prohibition is slowly starting to come apart. Despite the efforts of those that choose to mislead the masses, deny those in need and demonize the community that supports it, Cannabis has made its way into the Endocannabinoid systems of people worldwide.

Through education and sharing we can learn more about the Cannabis we consume. Knowing its source, knowing that it is grown with organic principles and has a minimal impact on the environment while creating a thriving community where it is produced should be just as important as its effects once consumed.

As a consumer the dollars you spend are votes cast towards the values you align with. Make sure and ask whether your Cannabis is free from pesticides, molds and mildews and if it has been certified by a third-party organization for its responsible agriculture and sustainable business practices.

Works Cited

[1] Szasz, Thomas. Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market. Syracuse, 1996.

[2]Gieringer, Dale H. The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. (24 October 2016)

[3] National Archives. Records of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Record Group 170: 1915 – 45, 1969 – 80. (24 October 2016).

[4] Gieringer, Dale H. The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. (24 October 2016)

[5] Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpreted. (24 October 2016).

[6] National Archives. Records of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Record Group 170: 1915 – 45, 1969 – 80. (24 October 2016).

[7] Sixty-Seventh Congress of the United States. Session II. Chapters 201 – 201. 1922.

[8] Gieringer, Dale H. The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. (24 October 2016)

[9] National Archives. Records of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Record Group 170: 1915 – 45, 1969 – 80. (24 October 2016).

[10]Fearns, Sean. Transcript of “Standing in the Shadows: the Legacy of Harry J. Anslinger”. DEA Lecture Series. October 15, 2014. (25 October 2016).

[11] Statement of Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of Narcotics, Bureau of Narcotics, Department of the Treasury. 1936. (25 October 2016).

[12] Bonnie, Richard J., and Charles H. Whitebread, II. The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: an Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition. Virgina Law Review 56.6: 971-1203 (1970). (24 October 2016)

[13] Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpreted. (24 October 2016).

[14] IMDb. Reefer Madness. (24 October 2016)

[xv] Solomon, David. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. (24 October 2016)

[xvi] IMDb. Hemp For Victory. (24 October 2016

[xvii] (24 October 2016)

[xviii] Rothwell, Virgina L. Boggs Act. Encyclopedia of Drug Policy. (24 October 2016)

[xix] Cameron, Jennifer M., and Ronna J. Dillinger. Narcotic Control Act. Encyclopedia of Drug Policy. (24 October 2016)

[xx] National Archives. Records of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Record Group 170: 1915 – 45, 1969 – 80. (24 October 2016).

[xxi] National Archives. Records of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Record Group 170: 1915 – 45, 1969 – 80. (24 October 2016).

[xxii] ACLU. Leary v. United States. ACLU Pros & Cons. (24 October 2016).

[xxiii] Sigel, Efrem. Psilocybin, Senate Race Highlight Harvard Year. The Harvard Crimson. July 9, 1963. (24 October 2016)

[xxiv] The Beatles Bible. Come Together. (25 October 2016)

[xxv] Public Law 91-513. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. October 27, 1970. (24 October 2016)

[xxvi] Public Law 91-513. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. October 27, 1970. (24 October 2016)

[xxvii] Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics Drug Law Library. (24 October 2016)

[xxviii] Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA History. (24 October 2016).

[xxix] National Criminal Justice Reference Service Abstract. (24 October 2016)

[xxx] State of California Department of Justice. Office of the Attorney General. (24 October 2016)

[xxxi] Humboldt State University Library. (24 October 2016)

[xxxii] Public Law 98-473. Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1894. (24 October 2016).

[xxxiii] ProCon.Org. (24 October 2016)

[xxxiv] (24 October 2016)

[xxxv] California Department of Public Health. Medical Marijuana Program. (24 Oct 2016)

[xxxvi]  United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative. 2001. Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. (25 October 2016). Justia U.S. Supreme Court Center. (24 October 2016)

[xxxvii] ACLU. (24 October 2016)

[xxxviii] Body Politic: The Supreme Court and abortion law. Gonzalez v. Raich. Oyez – IIT Chicago Kent College of Law. O454 (25 October 2016)

[xxxix] California Legislative Information. (24 October 2016)

[xl] Los Angeles Times. (31 October 2016)

[xli] California NORML. (24 October 2016)

[xlii] California Legislative Information. (24 October 2016)

[xliii]California NORML (09 November 2016)

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