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Legal Cannabis in MA: How did we get here?

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

Like the ongoing national effort to legalize cannabis, the effort for legalization in Massachusetts has been long and challenging. It was a battle that lasted for over 100 years, until 2016, when a statewide referendum was passed to finally legalize the regulated possession, cultivation, and sale of cannabis products. There were two major milestones reached by the MA legalization effort prior to full-legalization. The first was in 2008, when cannabis was officially decriminalized. This meant that an individual caught with small amounts of cannabis flower (an ounce or less) was subject only to a fine, and could not be criminally charged.

The second milestone came in 2012 when Massachusetts legalized the use and distribution of cannabis for medical patients. This allowed for individuals with a state-issued medical card to purchase cannabis from licensed medical cannabis providers. Both of these steps were instrumental to the process of getting cannabis legal in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Although the cannabis legalization referendum was successfully passed in November, 2016, the bill was not signed into law until two years later in November, 2018. This marked the end of a long and difficult battle, and finally allowed the people of Massachusetts to use and possess cannabis products.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use. Ironically, it was also the first state to explicitly prohibit cannabis. In 1911, the Massachusetts state legislation passed a law prohibiting the sale of cannabis, or “Indian Hemp” as it was referred to, without a prescription. Over the next two decades other states followed suit, and by 1930, marijuana was regulated as a drug in all fifty states. The first federal legislation passed against cannabis was the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This law placed a heavy tax on the sale of cannabis. Despite being framed as a law restricting the sale of cannabis, its main purpose was to reduce the growing hemp industry. Several notable businessmen with ties to the lumber and cotton industries were some of the biggest lobbyists in favor of the law. These included William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and members of the Du Pont family. These industry tycoons were threatened by the growing popularity for hemp as a substitute for a wide variety of products from clothing to paper.

The original motivation for cannabis prohibition was purely racial and economic

 It was around this time that opponents of cannabis ramped up their rhetoric, attempting to associate the plant with blacks and latinos. The founding  commissioner of the Federal Beureau of Narcotics (1932-1962) Henry Aslinger was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of cannabis on a federal level. He was an extreme racist who despised black jazz musicians in particular. Aslinger once infamously said, “Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and others.” When looking back at this time period retroactively, it is clear that the initial motivations for cannabis prohibition in the United States were purely racial and economic, and had actually very little to do with the substance itself. In fact, even the word marijuana becoming the official name for cannabis has racist roots. Aslinger and the FBN sought to liken cannabis with dark skinned people, specifically African-Americans and Mexicans. Since the word marijuana (sometimes spelled marihuana) originated in Mexico they thought that this would be the best term for an herb they so badly wanted to demonize and otherize.

“Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and others.” -Henry Aslinger, Founding Chairman of the FBN

Throughout the following decades, cannabis rose and fell in popularity at different times. From the 1930s until the 1960s, cannabis was not widely used in the United States. The federal government had run a successful smear campaign against the herb, and most Americans thought of it as a dangerous and addictive substance. In the ‘60s however, with the emergence of various countercultures, cannabis use experienced a resurgence. Its popularity grew until its peak in 1979 when almost a third of graduating high school seniors reported cannabis use in the month prior. With Ronald Reagan’s harsh anti-drug administration coming in in 1980, cannabis use once again declined, and stayed relatively low until the mid 2000’s, when the legalization effort became more mainstreamed.

This normalization of cannabis usage among Americans is due in large part to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or “NORML.” NORML was founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup. Stroup was a young lawyer who started the non-profit organization with a $5,000 donation by none other than Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, another vocal cannabis advocate in his time. The group merged with two other major legalization groups at the time, Legalize Marijuana or “LeMar” and Amorphia. Since then, NORML has become synonymous with the cannabis legalization effort both domestically and worldwide. There are currently 135 official NORML chapters with over 550 lawyers on staff. Each chapter has the same goal; “the removal of all penalties for the private possession and responsible use of marijuana by adults, including cultivation for personal use, and casual nonprofit transfers of small amounts,” and “the creation of a legal and regulatory framework for marijuana’s production and retail sale to adults.” The group is also big believers in ending the negative stigma associated with cannabis use that is still prevalent even in states where cannabis is legal.

In 2009, when photos surfaced of olympic legend Michael Phelps smoking cannabis and he was subsequently dropped from his Kellogg endorsement, NORML organized a national boycott of Kellogg products until they reversed their decision to drop Phelps. The boycott was successful. In 2016, when Massachusetts voted to legalize cannabis, NORML put pressure on Governor Charlie Baker to actualize the will of the people of Massachusetts people. Governor Baker has been a vocal critic of cannabis legalization, and was extremely slow to adopt referendum into written law. Due to the hostile administration, NORML currently gives Massachusetts a Grade “C” for their environment regarding cannabis and cannabis users.

Although groups like NORML have won many battles, their war against cannabis prohibition is far from over. There are currently over 40,000 Americans sitting in prison for nonviolent cannabis crimes. Therefore, the fight for cannabis legalization can never truly be won until each of these individuals is set free.

For more information on NORML, visit their website:


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