The History of Cannabis in Colorado

The Early Days of Cannabis in Colorado

Cannabis has been utilized for a variety of purposes throughout American history and was legal throughout the United States in the 1800s. Cannabis was legal at the time Colorado became a state in 1876 and remained legal until the early 1900s. In the late 1800s it was not uncommon to find cannabis tinctures in almost every medicine cabinet.

Timeline of Colorado’s History with Cannabis

1800s Cannabis was used in a variety of applications including to make clothing, paper, sails, and rope. Cannabis extract tinctures were also legal and commonly used to remedy various ailments.
Early 1900s Cannabis opponents began to associate cannabis with migrant workers from Mexico and Asia that smoked cannabis recreationally. The term marihuana started to see more widespread use to stoke anti-immigrant sentiments and demonize cannabis.
1917 The Colorado Legislature made the cultivation and use of cannabis a misdemeanor.
1929 The Colorado Legislature passed a law that made possession and sale of cannabis a felony.
1930s “Reefer Madness” propaganda was distributed throughout the United States by Harry Anslinger, Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
1937 The United States Government enacted the Marihuana Tax Act which made the cultivation and use of cannabis a federal crime.
1960s Cannabis opposition began to focus more on associating cannabis with hippies and free love culture.
1968 Surveys conducted among college students in Colorado report 67% support for cannabis legalization — one of the first indications that Colorado leaned towards cannabis legalization.
1970 The United States Government enacted the Controlled Substances Act and classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the most restrictive schedule.
1975 The Colorado Legislature decriminalized cannabis possession of up to one ounce and made possession a petty offense with a maximum fine of $100.
1979 Colorado Governor Dick Lamm signed the “Dangerous Drugs Therapeutic Research Act” which allowed glaucoma and cancer patients access to legal medical cannabis. The plan was not supported by the federal government.
1981 The Colorado Legislature passed a bill to allow patients access to medical cannabis distributed by the federal government, but the federal government did not agree.
1998 Colorado medical cannabis advocates successfully placed Amendment 19 on the ballot, but the Secretary of State refused to count the votes because they claimed the initiative did not receive enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
2000 Colorado voters passed Amendment 20 which allowed caretakers to dispense medical cannabis to patients with a doctor’s recommendation. Passage of Amendment 20 made Colorado the only state to place a right to medical cannabis in the state constitution.
2009 The Colorado Legislature passed the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code which allowed the licensing of commercial cultivation, production, and distribution of medical cannabis.
2012 Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 which legalized the sale, possession, and use of recreational cannabis.
2014 Colorado became the first state to open recreational dispensaries for legal cannabis sale.
2020 Colorado Governor Polis declared cannabis businesses essential services, allowing dispensaries to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical marijuana deliveries are legalized and begin. Marijuana hospitality licensing and spaces are authorized.

Infographic: Click to Enlarge

The Start of Cannabis Prohibition

Cannabis was widely used for medicinal purposes into the early 1900s, but the turn of the century also saw a shift in the treatment of cannabis. Economic booms across the western states resulted in an influx of migrant workers, including many from Mexico who used cannabis recreationally. Those opposed to the migrant workers started to associate cannabis with the migrant workers and began working towards criminalization. The media started referring to cannabis as “marihuana” and published numerous stories on the dangers of the plant. Western states like California, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada criminalized cannabis and Colorado followed in 1917 by making the use and cultivation of cannabis a misdemeanor.

Cannabis Becomes a Felony in Colorado

Cannabis continued to be associated with migrant workers and other immigrants that moved to Colorado to work in mines or on farms. The media published sensational stories attributing violence and the corruption of youth to the use of cannabis. These stories prompted local religious leaders in Denver to call for stricter measures to control both the growing immigrant population and cannabis. In 1929, the Colorado legislature responded by making the possession and distribution of marijuana a felony.

The Marihuana Tax Act & Reefer Madness

Restrictions on the cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis continued to be enacted across the United States. Prohibitionists also spread propaganda, including the film “Reefer Madness,” that eventually resulted in the federal government taking action. In 1937 the United States government enacted the Marihuana Tax Act which criminalized the cultivation and distribution of cannabis. The Marihuana Tax Act was lifted briefly during World War II to allow the production of hemp fiber needed to create ropes for the United States Navy.

The 1960s: Public Opinion Begins to Shift

During the decades following the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, the focus of prohibitionists shifted from immigrant workers to the flourishing hippie culture. Local newspapers included numerous stories about hippies busted for growing cannabis plants and opinion pieces on how they deserved to go to jail.

The same decade also saw some shift in public opinion. A 1968 story reported that 67% of college students in Colorado supported cannabis legalization. By 1970, the same year the federal government enacted the Controlled Substances Act, progressives in Colorado were pushing for lower penalties on cannabis use and possession. This resulted in recreational possession being downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. In the same year, Hunter S. Thompson ran for Pitkin County Sheriff in Colorado on a platform of drug decriminalization and lost by only a small margin.

The 1970s: Colorado Downgrades Cannabis Possession to $100 Fine

In Colorado, public views on cannabis continued to shift throughout the 1970s. It became increasingly clearer that Colorado residents wanted cannabis decriminalized and the Colorado legislature decriminalized possession of up to once ounce in 1975. Possession was made a petty offense with a maximum fine of $100.

Colorado’s First Medical Cannabis Bill

In 1979 Colorado Governor Dick Lamm signed the “Dangerous Drugs Therapeutic Research Act.” The law would make marijuana legal for glaucoma and cancer patients with a doctor’s prescription to access medical cannabis from the University of Colorado Health Science Center. The program was dependent on federal approval which was never provided. Colorado attempted a similar bill in 1981, this time with medical cannabis provided by the federal government, but federal government again refused to act because cannabis was classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

Amendment 20 Puts Medical Cannabis in State Constitution

Following passage of the medical cannabis initiative Proposition 215 in California, proponents of medical cannabis in Colorado attempted to place Amendment 19 on the ballot. The Secretary of State Vikki Buckley refused to count the votes and argued that the measure had not received enough signatures to appear on the ballot. Medical cannabis proponents persisted and successfully placed Amendment 20 on the ballot in 2000. Colorado voters approved Amendment 20 and Colorado became the first state to place medical cannabis in the state constitution.

Amendment 20 allowed caretakers to dispense medical cannabis to patients after the patient received a doctor’s recommendation. The program began in 2001 despite a threat from the Attorney General to press federal charges against doctors that issued recommendations. Growth in the program was slow initially but by 2010 there were over 100,000 patients registered with the medical cannabis program in Colorado.

The Colorado Medical Marijuana Code

During the 2000s caregivers were operating retail outlets even though Amendment 20 had not explicitly authorized or regulated the distribution of medical cannabis. It became clearer that Colorado required a state-regulated system for the production and distribution of medical cannabis. In 2010, the Colorado legislature created the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code with the passage of bills that licensed the commercial production and distribution of medical cannabis. The bills also placed new restrictions on patients, caregivers, and doctors.

Amendment 64: Legalized Adult-Use Cannabis

On November 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana. In Colorado, Amendment 64 altered the state constitution and committed Colorado to regulate cannabis similarly to alcohol and tobacco. On January 1, 2014, Colorado became the first state to open recreational dispensaries. The tax revenue generated from cannabis sales soon eclipsed the tax revenue from both alcohol and tobacco and became a reliable source of revenue for the state.

Colorado Leads the Way

Amendment 20 and Amendment 64 have been good for the state of Colorado and acted as a model for the rest of the country on how to successfully end cannabis prohibition. Along with the economic boost, cannabis legalization has inspired creative and innovative entrepreneurship. Colorado companies continue to lead the way in developing new cultivation techniques, production efficiencies, and other innovative solutions to industry problems. Legalization has also helped to continue the shift in public perception of cannabis and recent polls show support for legalization at an all-time high.

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