The Road

to Legalization

Stories in
this section:

In the Beginning

2727 B.C.

Chinese writings say it’s good for rheumatism, gout, malaria.

1450 B.C.

Book of Exodus mentions ritual anointing with what some botanists say was a mixture of cannabis and olive oil.


Hemp for rope was colonial crop. Urban myth says drafts of Constitution were on hemp paper.


Colorado becomes state. Cannabis legal in U.S., though some states require labeling on medicine bottles. Used medicinally and for fun in trendy hashish dens.


Federal Pure Food Drug Act requires labeling of cannabis and other misbranded, adulterated or poisonous foods, drugs, medicines and liquors. Prevented interstate commerce of those that did not comply. Some states add non-medical cannabis to “poison law” lists, limiting sales to pharmacies and requiring prescriptions.


California first state to forbid use, tied it to anti- Hindu and Mexican immigrant issues by calling it marijuana. Colorado banned it in 1917.


Prohibition made it popular in jazz clubs. Campaign against it linked it to blacks, musicians, prostitutes, criminals. Similar tactics used in the 1950s against “degenerate” Beat generation, and counterculture Hippies in 1960s.

Reefer Madness


Colorado makes sale and use a felony. Mexican migrants targeted in some campaigns.


Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act allows Federal Bureau of Narcotics to lean on states to control problem by adopting this as state law. Bureau claims it caused users to commit violent crimes, act crazy and be overly sexual. “Reefer Madness” movie becomes a cult classic.


Federal Marijuana Tax Act makes growing and use without a license a crime. The statute criminalizes marijuana, restricting it to those who pay an expensive excise tax for authorized medical and industrial uses.

First prosecution nationwide was Denver resident who got four-year sentence. Federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry Anslinger came to Denver to publicize the sentencing. He lobbies for the tax by inciting fear of Mexicans and jazz musicians, including Glenn Miller. His Congressional testimony includes a letter from an Alamosa Daily Courier editor: “I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.” Publisher William Randolph Hearst reported that Mexican and black people were smoking it, causing them to rape and murder whites. Some historians surmised he feared hemp would replace newsprint, thus ruining his timber holdings. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the tax act unconstitutional when LSD guru Timothy Leary sued. Justices said that requiring licenses would cause people to be identified as a suspect group and thus be subject to self incrimination.


President Roosevelt allows emergency industrial hemp production for canvas, rope, oil and feed and pays farmers to grow it during World War II.


Cannabis added to the Narcotics Control Act. First offense, 2 to 10 years in prison and fine up to $20,000.

War on Drugs


The federal Controlled Substance Act classifies marijuana, along with heroin and LSD, as a Schedule I drug having highest abuse potential. Under President Richard Nixon. who declares a war on drugs, there is more drug enforcement, mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. However, 11 states, with Oregon first, decriminalized penalties for possession between 1973 and 1977. Colorado did so in 1975, making possession of less than one ounce a petty crime.


In Colorado, State Rep. Michael Strang, a Carbondale Republican, introduces unsuccessful state bill to legalize it.


President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy continue anti-drug campaign, mostly focusing on cocaine. But marijuana is included at a time when more than a third of Americans say they tried it. Penalties led to skyrocketing prison population, from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. President Bill Clinton says it should be decriminalized, but war on drugs continues. George W. Bush calls for student drug testing. (Clinton said he had smoked but didn’t inhale. Obama said he inhaled because “that was the point.”)

Medical Marijuana Fight


San Francisco first city to legalize medical cannabis.


California Gov. Peter Wilson vetoes two legislature-passed state medical pot laws.


California Prop 215 allows use and growing of medicinal pot. Initiated by Dennis Peron in memory of his partner, Jonathan West, who had used it to treat AIDS symptoms.


Washington approves cannabis for medical use, with doctor’s okay, for cancer, HIV, epilepsy, glaucoma, pain and multiple sclerosis. In 2008, anorexia, Hepatitis C and Crohn’s disease are added. Alaska and Oregon also okay medical use.


In Colorado, Amendment 19, undergoes 13-month “long tortuous path” to legalization of medical weed, as one backer called it.

Secretary of State Vikki Buckley says amendment doesn’t have enough signatures to get on the ballot. District court overrules her. In midst of printing ballots, Buckley appeals to Colorado Supreme Court, which orders her to check each name individually. Again she says petitions are 2,338 signatures short. Ballots are printed, so go to voters; Buckley refuses to count the votes.

Backers sue and win. Buckley is in midst of ordered recount of petition signatures when she dies on July 14, 1999, of cardiac arrest. State finishes the count, finding there had been enough signatures.


Judge orders medical marijuana placed on the Colorado ballot as Amendment 20. Voters approve it, 54 percent to 46 percent.

The Door Opens

Amendment 20 allows those with debilitating medical conditions to possess two ounces and grow six plants or have caregiver do it for them. Caregivers can have no more than five patients. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issues cards to those with doctor’s okay. From 2001 to 2008 there are 6,000 patient applications, and about 55 percent designate a caregiver. Medical marijuana “opened the door” to what would happen next, said Rachel Gillette, Colorado NORML director.


Campaign for recreational use grows. Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) is started by students at University of Colorado, Boulder, and Colorado State University after two students died of alcohol poisoning. They get initiative I-100 on Denver city ballot. It wins with 53.5 of the vote, allowing recreational use of one ounce for those over 21.


State Amendment 44 to legalize recreational use in Colorado fails 60 percent to 40 percent. “It was grass roots, but it was defeated because they didn’t run a good campaign,” said Tom Gorman, director, Rocky Mountain HIDTA.


Denver District judge rules state health department violated open meeting law when it set the caregiver ratio for medical cannabis. Result: a grey area in which caregivers sign up unlimited number of patients. Many local prosecutors stop trying cases. But few dispensaries open because of fear of federal prosecution.


“All hell broke loose,” Gorman said. U.S. Attorney General says feds will no longer take action against medical marijuana dispensaries that are in compliance of state and local laws. In Colorado, there is an explosion of new medical marijuana patient applications. Cardholders went from 4,800 in 2008 to 108,000 — along with 532 licensed dispensaries — in 2012. Law enforcement unsuccessfully lobbies to ban dispensaries and reinstate the one-to-five ratio of caregiver to patient.


Colorado Legislature passes HB10-1284, which legalizes full-scale dispensaries, marijuana cultivation operations and manufacturers for marijuana edible products.

The law becomes the blueprint for recreational legalization.

It is unique because it creates both a state regulatory agency and state business licensing: the Department of Health and Environment for the patients and caregivers, and dispensary business licensing under the state Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division. The for-profit licensing aspect becomes the model for Amendment 64.


Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational use in California, fails in part because of a lack of centralized regulation. There is only a patchwork of local laws and nonprofit collectives. Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls it “a jumbled legal nightmare.”


Washington and Rhode Island ask federal government to reclassify medical marijuana from Schedule 1, controlled substance, to Schedule II, a drug with medical uses so it could be sold in pharmacies without risk of prosecution. Drug Enforcement Administration refuses.


Timeline constructed using information
from these sources

Gazette interviews: Rachel Gillette, attorney and executive director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML); Tom Gorman, director, Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (program under Office of National Drug Control provides analysis and cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies); Beau Kilmer, co-director, Drug Policy Research Center, Rand Corporation; Mike Stetler, owner, Marisol Therapeutics, Pueblo West, (dispensary); Alison Holcomb, Washington ACLU, author of Initiative 502.

Reports: HIDTA’s “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado, 2013”; Colorado State University’s Colorado Futures Center’s “Fiscal Impact of Amendment 64”; various marijuana articles, news reports, histories and timelines from California Law Review, Drug Policy Alliance, Narconon, NORML, High Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Seattle P-I, Boulder Weekly, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Westword magazine (“The History of Cannibis, 2010”); The Gazette; David Kopel blog, Independence Institute; The Associated Press; Wikipedia history of cannabis; Frontline;; Huffington Post;;;;;; Encyclopedia Britannica blog; National Institutes of Health;;; and