Understanding Medical Marijuana Legalization In The United States: A Brief History

Posted on by Chandan Sanwal

Since there are now 33 states in the U.S. where the use of medical marijuana is legal, it’s an ideal time to look back at the chain of past events that led to the present. That’s what we’re going to do today because it was also around 20 years ago, that there’s only one state who didn’t prohibit medical marijuana. We’ve come a long way, and the future is looking bright for the cannabis industry. So let’s pause a little while as we reflect what happened before that made the legislation of this wonder plant into reality.

Medical marijuana legalization timeline 


U.S. lawmakers have debated for decades about the medicinal benefits of marijuana, along with who’s allowed and what form and part of the plant can be taken. Cannabidiol (CBD) has always been the center of research because of its non-psychoactive property, the same substance that has medical benefits. Medical marijuana was also continuously recommended by doctors as a remedy for specific medical conditions. For example, these type of strain are known to offer relaxation benefits and are prescribed to people suffering from anxiety, stress, or insomnia.

hemp leaves on wooden background, seeds, cannabis oil extracts in jars.



Here’s the timeline of significant events that led to medical marijuana legalization :

  • 1996. It was the state of California who took the initiative to submit Proposition 215, which aimed to legalize medical marijuana. Arizona proposed the same initiative but didn’t pass into law because of conflicts with the federal law, citing a passage which stated “marijuana prescriptions.”

    The following year, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has communicated with the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates to review an extensive report about the positive medical value of marijuana.
  • 1998. Around 70% of the electors in Washington, D.C., called for the approval of the medical marijuana drive with support from MPP. In the same year, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. all submitted their specific laws medical marijuana use.
  • 2000. The first legislation success was recorded as Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, approves the medical marijuana use into law as initiated by  MPP.
  • 2003. Maryland congress files a bill for the protection of patients that were treated with medical marijuana from incarceration. MPP has been lobbying congress for many years, and Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich approves the bill.


In the years that follow, the states Montana, Vermont, Rhode Island were an addition to the 11 states which legalized medical marijuana to specific patients, all with the help of MPP in the drafting of legislation. 

  • 2009. Washington D.C and New Jersey passed into law the use of legal, medical marijuana. 

In the same year, President Obama administration initiated a new policy that protects patients from prosecution if they use medical marijuana to their health problem.

  • 2012-2013. The Obama administration presents the Cole Memo, a resolution to give further federal protection to states that already have legal,  medical marijuana laws approved. New Hampshire and Illinois were added to the states which legalized medical marijuana.

    It was also the period where the use of recreational marijuana was made legal in Washington and Colorado.

Twenty years after, the call to legalize and decriminalize the use of marijuana as the public support is growing every year. Recent poll results showed that more than 50% of the U.S. has sided with the initiative to regulate marijuana, both recreational and medical purposes. Scientific researches back the potential of cannabis as a remedy to specific health conditions, and this is the main reason 33 states have acted on its legislation. 

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