Recreational Cannabis in America

Written by: Italia Skye Edmond (Michael P. Chandra)

Recreational marijuana has become a “buzzworthy” topic in America, especially since the Trump administration entered office. There are fear-mongers who continuously parrot the ever-popular folderol of “Marijuana is a gateway drug!” to an increasingly scared and uninformed choir. Politicians, pharmaceutical companies, and even some groups within the general population are still demonizing this harmless means of relaxation and relief. No mind is paid to marijuana’s long-standing history as a medicinal plant – and it is only getting worse.

But this is not a new issue; this back and forth has been going on for decades.

The Criminalization of Marijuana

It started in the 1930s, when Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the DEA’s precursor) director, Harry Jacob Anslinger, was faced with an ever-increasing threat bankruptcy for his division. Under pressure by Beltway bureaucrats to do something productive with his agency, he stumbled upon this mightily ingenious solution: blame marijuana.

Open bigotry against Hispanic communities and other minorities was considered the norm during the Great Depression era. Anslinger decided to tie this in with marijuana. He claimed that it was responsible for the hatred that Hispanic people felt toward white people (even though they didn’t, and they still don’t). He also said they were willing to do anything to sate their hatred and obtain the drug: maim, murder, rape – you name it, they would do it.

The propaganda was an absolute success. Due to its alleged connection to the Hispanic communities, marijuana had effectively become a demonized substance. PSAs like “Reefer Madness” inspired Americans to take a stand against an ‘illicit’ ‘drug,’ hate crimes intensified against Hispanic people, and marijuana users were thrown in jail, often for long and extended sentences, even for minor drug offenses – a trend that still plagues America today.

It took decades to undo some of the damage that Anslinger had done, and we still haven’t fully convinced everyone that marijuana is not a dangerous substance, but America is (slowly but surely) heading for the Golden Age of Legalization. States, who have been given the right to make their own laws, have experienced little federal interference up to this point. That could soon change, but for now, advocates are celebrating the progress that has been made.

What Does Progress Look Like?

The bold few states who have opted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes have enacted some common restrictions on its use. They are as follows:

  • Individuals must be at least twenty-one years of age before using cannabis or any cannabis-derived products. This restriction is a point of contention for some, particularly the more libertarian-inclined who feel the age discrepancy between cigarettes and marijuana is unjust.
  • Individuals may only purchase cannabis from stores licensed by the state. (Some state authorities make a license hard to get, with Massachusetts being the worst offender.)
  • Individuals may not operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of cannabis or any cannabis-derived product (a very reasonable restriction).

Despite these similarities, each state has its own flavor of the law (like the many different strains of cannabis). These variations impact recreational users, as well as also medical users who require access for chronic, debilitating, or painful conditions. As such, medical users in legalized recreational states may benefit from understanding the laws of their state.


Alaska is probably the last state that people think of when they consider progressive legislation, yet the Final Frontier is, in fact, one of the most progressive recreational states. Not only have they ignored the public use of cannabis, due to loopholes in the legislation, but the Alaska Legislature recently approved Amsterdamesque ‘cannabis cafes’ to start operating as early as this upcoming summer. Currently, the legislation only allows for the consumption of edibles. It is still unclear whether the shops will be permitted to sell edible products, or if consumers will be required to bring their own.


Long considered the birthplace of American marijuana culture, the Golden State led the nation in legalizing medical marijuana in 1996. Upon the ratification of Proposition 64 in 2016, recreational marijuana immediately became legal as well. Though California is very lax in ‘combating’ marijuana, there are still some things that patients and other users should know about the cannabis laws in California.

Users may carry up to one ounce of marijuana. Per the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, passengers of any motor vehicle may not ingest or use cannabis in any form. There are lots of smoking clubs in California, a prominent one being the Barbary Coast (952 Mission, San Francisco), but recreational sales of any kind will not begin until at least January 2018. Last but not least, the restriction on public smoking is largely ignored by both law enforcement and users. However, be warned that it is aggressively enforced within 1,000 feet of a daycare or school.


Colorado is considered revolutionary because their statewide law does not explicitly ban or permit public consumption of marijuana. Unfortunately, the lack of legislation has resulted in a mishmash of local ordinances that may confuse patients who travel or move from one city to the another. Patients may even experience trouble just going from one side of the city to another. Thankfully, Denver voters did clarify the law after passing Proposition 300, which allows for cannabis consumption while indoors at bars and restaurants, provided it is not smoked. There is also a provision within the proposition that might permit the creation of outside smoking areas.


On December 15th, 2016, Massachusetts joined the growing list of recreational cannabis states. There are many restrictions to be mindful of, however. Only six plants can be grown for personal use, and users must ensure that their products are transported in secured containers anytime they are not on private property. Violations can cost as much as five hundred dollars in fines.


Residents of the most north-easterly state in the U.S. can also reap the benefits of cannabis, now that it has been legalized for recreational purposes. An individual may possess up to 2 and ½ ounces of marijuana, and may grow up to six plants (strictly for personal use). This is handy since retail sales of recreational marijuana will only be allowed beginning 2018, when a state-wide moratorium on recreational sales expires.


Oregon made cannabis legal in July of 2015. Residents can grow up to four plants for recreational and personal use, but can get hit with a hefty fine of 125k, should they choose to break that rule. It can also cost up to a thousand dollars for those who attempt to buy or sell it without a dispensary license.


The Silver State is the newest babe to join the ranks of legalized recreational marijuana states. Initiative Petition 1 has legalized recreational marijuana in the state; however, recreational sales have yet to begin, causing a lot of headaches for people all across Nevada. It is also important to know that “The Strip” will not be seeing recreational marijuana ever, as the City of Las Vegas has very specific legislation prohibiting it.

One good thing about Nevada, though; public marijuana use in Nevada is already a thing. State legislators are prepared to set it in stone with Senate Bill 236, which was introduced by State Senator Tick Segerblom. If passed, it would make public use of marijuana legal.


Washington was among one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. They have moderate restrictions on recreational marijuana, perhaps stemming from its long experience with it (after all, this coastal state legalized medical marijuana in 1998). Restrictions include no growing of personal plants unless you are a registered medical marijuana patient. Possession is also restricted to sixteen ounces of flower and up to seventy-two ounces of liquid cannabis oils. It is also worth noting that, though Washington law is technically very punitive on people who smoke anything publically, it does occur quite frequently in some areas. Perhaps this due to its extensive and long-standing liberalistic marijuana culture.

Honorary Mention: Washington, D.C.

Our nation’s capital has had medical marijuana legal within its borders for at least twenty years. Those credentials were bolstered even further when, in 2014, voters passed Initiative 71, which allows consumption by individuals over the age of twenty-one. However, D.C.’s special status as a virtually federal-controlled enclave, and the fact that federal law still lists cannabis as a schedule I substance, marijuana is illegal on federal property, which comprises most of D.C. land. This also includes public housing, which is also considered governmental property.

However, residents may still grow up to six plants for personal use (only three mature plants at a time). Out-of-state visitors with a valid medical marijuana card may also purchase marijuana at D.C. dispensaries, and each person may carry up to two ounces at a time.

State Laws Give Hope for the Future

These places are taking a step in the right direction, but more must be done. Right now, the number of American states in which medical marijuana is legal clocks in at 28 (excluding D.C.). The number of states in which recreational marijuana is legal is even smaller than that! Further, there have been concerns over possible crack-downs from the Trump administration.

Yet, even if the crackdowns do come, all is not lost.

Take Canada, for example. Under the previous, conservative administration, the mere thought of passing country-wide legalization would have seemed preposterous. Now the country is slated to pass a sweeping law that would allow cannabis use for all adult citizens, for any use. A NANOS study, which revealed about 7 out of 10 Canadians feel marijuana should be legalized, backs up the passing of this recent legislation.

Likewise, a Gallup poll on American viewpoints returned results that would’ve made Anslinger weep. A whopping 60 percent of Americans, whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent now hold the same opinion that marijuana should be legalized. Of course, the statistics are slightly lopsided with more Democrats and Independents declaring their support, but the underlying fact is that more and more Americans are recognizing that marijuana does not pose a threat – not to recreational users, and certainly not to medical patients.

These results suggest that the tide may be turning in America as well. Perhaps it won’t be long before the U.S. is hit by sweeping legalization of cannabis. At the very least, we can (and should) continue to hope and advocate. Because the work is well worth the effort.

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