This Map Shows Cannabis Legalization Across America Since 1939

The road to cannabis legalization has been long and arduous. But, while progress may be slow, the arc of the universe bends toward justice.

Feb 3, 2017 - Stephen Calabria

The road to cannabis legalization has been long, arduous, and paved with difficulty. But as the map above shows, while progress may be a long time coming, the arc of the universe bends toward justice.

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In what may seem like a different world – because it was – the United States in 1939 had exceedingly different laws regarding cannabis use than it does today.

At that point, only Alaska had laws that decriminalized cannabis; otherwise, every single state in the union prohibited the use and possession of the substance.


Fast forward almost forty years, and a few states managed to jump aboard the liberalization bandwagon.

Nine states in the union – among them, California, Oregon, Nebraska, Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Mississippi, and New York – had passed laws that decriminalized the use and possession of cannabis.


Jump forward another twelve years, and only one thing changed: Alaska – the first state in the union to have decriminalized cannabis use – passed a measure prohibiting its use. This brought the total number of states having passed decriminalization measures down to nine.


All of a sudden, things start moving.

By 2000, seven states had passed measures that went far beyond mere decriminalization. Five of those states – Nevada, Colorado, California, Washington, and Alaska – passed measures that legalized the use of the substance’s psychoactive derivatives for medicinal purposes.

Two additional states – Oregon and Maine – decriminalized the substance for recreational use and legalized the use of the substance’s psychoactive derivatives for medicinal purposes.


Four years after seven states passed decriminalization laws, three additional states moved to liberalize their regulations on the issue. Vermont and Montana joined the ranks of states that had previously allowed for cannabis’ psychoactive components to be utilized as medicine.

Meanwhile, Alaska passed a measure that not only decriminalized the substance for recreational use but also allowed for its psychoactive components to be used medicinally, making it one of three states in the union to do so.


Add three more states to the column of those that allowed for the medical use of psychoactive cannabis: Rhode Island, New Mexico, and Michigan. That brought the total number of states in that category to eight.


This was the year that the door got kicked wide open.

In addition to the scores of liberalization measures that were passed across the country, two states – Washington and Colorado – passed ballot initiatives that allowed for the legal recreational use of cannabis.


The country by 2014 was a patchwork of different cannabis laws that saw even the most conservative states in the union – such as Utah, Alabama, and South Carolina – with some form of cannabis legalization on the books. Still, over a dozen states in the union still had blanket prohibitions on the possession and use of the substance.


The 2016 election marked the first time in U.S. history that more than half of all U.S. states had legalized cannabis in some form. This includes the eight states – plus the District of Columbia – that allow for legal recreational cannabis use.

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