The history of laws relating to cannabis in California is intertwined with some the major events regarding the history of the laws in the United States regarding cannabis use and possession as well as several major cultural events. This article will outline a brief timeline of the history of laws in California regarding cannabis possession and use, and how these were affected by other national forms of legislation and events. The majority of information in this article is taken from a September 13, 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times and from the book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.


Governor Eugene Foss of Massachusetts signed the first law prohibiting marijuana in the United States. The law stated that it allowed for search warrants to be issued for the search of “hypnotic drugs” and to arrest and charge those possessing these drugs. Marijuana was one of the targeted drugs of this legislation.



In June 1936, a film that was produced by a church group as a shock tactic. The film depicted a trio of drug dealers that exploit innocent teenagers by getting them addicted to “reefers” at wild parties where jazz music played. The title of the movie Tell Your Children was changed in the 1970s to Reefer Madness. While viewed as an archaic depiction of marijuana after the 1970s, the film was taken seriously in the 1930s and 1940s. The film depicts many of the cultural views of marijuana use at the time, including marijuana being a seriously addictive drug that produces significant physical dependence.



In July 1937, the federal government passed The Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively banned the recreational use of marijuana through penalties and taxation. Industrial hemp used in the making of rope and other products was banned later, but the federal government allowed the production of industrial hemp during World War II. The last commercial industrial hemp field was closed in 1957.

In October, the first seller of marijuana was arrested under federal law. Samuel R. Caldwell was arrested and convicted. He spent four years in prison, and his customer was also arrested and incarcerated for a period of 18 months.

Throughout the years, marijuana remained an illegal drug of abuse and the stigma attached to it was similar to that associated with other drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.



The United Nations created an international treaty to ban marijuana and other narcotic drugs.



The major psychoactive substance in cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was synthesized for the first time. Following this development, scientists were then able to synthesize other substances in cannabis. A number of research studies were published regarding the actions of the cannabinoids and their metabolism. The actual identification of the neuroreceptors involved in the brain did not occur until later.



In April, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was formed. The position was funded by a grant of $5,000 from the Playboy Foundation.

The 1937 act prohibited marijuana but did not outright ban the drug. In 1970, the federal government passed the Controlled Substances Act that set up the Drug Enforcement Administration and classified drugs according to different schedules. Marijuana was, and still is, classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it has no recognized medicinal uses and is considered to be a substance with a very high potential for abuse and the development of physical dependence. Despite numerous research studies suggesting that marijuana has some medicinal uses and that its potential for the development of physical dependence is actually rather mild in most cases, this classification has not changed. This act influenced many legal and state proposals regarding marijuana and other drugs.



In March, the Shafer commission appointed by President Nixon refuted the gateway theory of marijuana as being a drug that leads to significant use of other drugs or to crime.
In June, California attempted to decriminalize personal marijuana use through Proposition 19. The proposition failed.



In March, voters in Berkeley, California, pass the Berkeley Marijuana Initiative I, which prohibits police officers from making marijuana-related arrests unless they are first approved by the city council.

In June, Oregon is the first state to follow the Shafer commission’s recommendation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana (an ounce or less). The offense is now a civil offense, and offenders are cited, fined, and their marijuana is seized. Possession of amounts larger than an ounce is still a criminal offense because it is assumed that these amounts indicate that the person is engaged in selling and delivering the drug.



Robert Randall becomes the very first medical marijuana patient in the United States. He later sued the federal government (in 1976) for denying him treatment for his glaucoma when the federal government attempts to stop research into cannabis.



The Moscone Act in California changes possession for small amounts of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor. The passage of the law is prompted by an extremely high number of cannabis related arrests in the criminal justice system.



After Robert Randall’s successful suit of the federal government, the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program is established in June to supply people with medical marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi.

In his address to Congress in August, President Jimmy Carter speaks about decriminalizing marijuana.



Voters in Berkeley California pass the Berkeley Marijuana Initiative II. This ordinance makes the growing, possession, transportation, and sale of marijuana the police department’s lowest priority.



In February, a judge rules that the DEA has been improperly hindering research into cannabis and that the drug can be used safely and is a therapeutic product. As a result of this, organizations like NORML have asked the DEA to reclassify marijuana, but it remains a Schedule I controlled substance.

In June, the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain are discovered, leading to the beginning of understanding how these drugs work in the central nervous system.



In March, the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program stops taking new patients due to President Bush’s hard stance on drugs. At its peak, the program supplied 30 patients with government grown marijuana for treatment of various conditions.

In August, the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, CA, became the first city government to recognize that marijuana had medicinal uses. The enforcement of marijuana laws is made the city’s lowest priority.



Voters in California pass Proposition 215, which legalizes the use and sale of marijuana for medical purposes in California. This law conflicts with federal statutes.



In California, legislation is introduced that promotes a three-year program to investigate medical research, focusing on marijuana as a pharmacological treatment. This legislation results in the funding of the University of California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego.



In June, LEAP (Law Enforcement against Prohibition) is founded. The group consists of five founding police officers but eventually expands to police officers, judges, prosecutors, DEA agents, FBI agents, and nearly 50,000 civilians. The organization firmly states that prohibition worsens violence and addiction to drugs. Marijuana is not given any special consideration. Its formation reveals that there are still a large number of individuals who are not sympathetic to legalizing marijuana for any purpose.



In Oakland, California, a measure passes that allows the taxation and regulation of cannabis for adult use. This measure also makes prosecution of adults who use or possess marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. The supporters of the bill promise to lobby the state to regulate marijuana sales.



A Department of Justice memo from the Obama administration directs federal prosecutors to defer to state laws regarding the sale and use of medicinal marijuana. However, President Obama refuses to legalize the drug.



In January, Governor Schwarzenegger signs SB 1449, which makes the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a misdemeanor and a civil infraction in the state of California.

In July, the Oakland city council votes to approve a citywide plan for the cultivation of medical marijuana in four factories. The plans for the factories are derailed when the Obama administration warns the city council that they are in violation of federal law.

In November, Proposition 19 in California, which would effectively legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years of age and over, and allow the state to tax marijuana sales, is defeated by a small margin (53.5 percent against; 46 percent in favor).



In February, the Department of Justice directs federal prosecutors not to prosecute individuals who are in compliance with state laws allowing for the use and sale of medicinal marijuana.

In June, the Hemp Farming Act (SB 676) is introduced. It allows several counties to build a successful hemp industry for medicinal use. A bill to take marijuana off the list of controlled substances is introduced.

In July, the DEA refuses to remove marijuana from their list of controlled substances and the Justice Department formally warns that marijuana is illegal.

In October, four US attorneys for the state of California begin to prosecute property owners and landlords who rent buildings or land that is used to sell or grow marijuana.



In January, Mendocino County, California, ends its permit program to medical marijuana growers (this was the first program in the nation), giving into pressure from the federal government. The city also made it illegal to cultivate more than 25 marijuana plants.

In July, Harborside Health Center in Oakland, often reputed to be the largest marijuana dispensary in the world, is targeted by the federal government. Workers cannot enter the building as the US government has filed a suit to seize the building.

In October, city officials in Oakland file a lawsuit against the federal government regarding the Harborside incident. The federal government eventually drops the case in 2016.



Voters in Washington and Colorado approve measures to legalize recreational marijuana use.



The Justice Department sends a memo to the governors of Washington and Colorado stating that they most likely will not challenge the state laws regarding recreational marijuana use.

In a state poll, 55 percent of California voters report that they would support the legalization of marijuana.



California lawmakers begin to draft a new set of regulations for statewide medicinal marijuana programs. The Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation is created to establish rules for growing cannabis and to set fees and licensing standards. Marijuana growers must adhere to the laws and regulations that are used to control other farming practices.



Governor Brown appoints the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation’s “pot czar.” The bureau also drafts groundwork for regulations if voters approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in California.

In November, Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act is approved by voters. It legalizes the recreational use of marijuana in the state of California.

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