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The History of Cannabis in the California Market

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

California has always been the leading effort throughout the United States to legalize marijuana recreationally and medically, which resulted in us being the first state to actually legalize it for medicinal use on November 5, 1996 (Proposition 215). Ten years later, in November of 2016, CA passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64) leading to the legalization of recreational marijuana, officially going into effect on January 1, 2018.

History has revealed that hemp was most likely the first plant utilized for textile fiber dating all the way back to 8,000 BC where hemp cloth was found in ancient Mesopotamia . Fast forward thousands of centuries to the early colonization of the Americas, the plant was commonly utilized by the English Navy for rope and sails because of its strength and durability. There was a time where American colonists were actually required to delegate part of their acreage to growing hemp due to its high demand.

California (mostly Southern California) didn’t begin cultivating hemp until the 18th century. When Mexico revolted against Spain in the 19th century, support for growing hemp was challenged and the crop became nearly extinct. It wasn’t until Arabs, Armenians, and Turks arrived in the late 19th century that the crop started to be consumed for recreational use next to opium and legal action was being threatened.

In 1907, California enacted the Poison Act which made the possession of narcotic preparations of hemp illegal. So from the 1920’s to the 1930’s, the state applied stricter laws incriminating the possession and use of recreational cannabis while still supporting pharmaceutical use of it. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 1960’s that California started seeing cannabis usage by students and professionals as an accustomed part of their daily lives.

12 years later, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis in 1972, and California shortly after in 1975. This made possession of the plant a civil offense instead of a criminal one. Then on September 30, 2010, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill dropping the recreational possession of an ounce of cannabis from a misdemeanor to an infraction, almost equivalent to a traffic violation.

On November 5, 1996, The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Proposition 215) was passed making California the first state to exhibit a medical cannabis program. This allowed residents the right to:

  • Ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraines or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.

  • Ensure that patients and their primary caregivers who obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes upon the recommendation of a physician are not subject to criminal prosecution or sanction.

  • Encourage the federal and state governments to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need.

Legally, doctors could now recommend the use of medical marijuana to treat ailments. The challenge then became who actually needed to use marijuana for medical reasons and who did not. To combat this challenge, Senate Bill 420 established on September 2003, put in motion an identification card system for medical marijuana patients and gave authorities confirmation of who they were speaking with. These identification cards were and still are issued through the California Department of Public Health’s Medical Marijuana Program (MMP). Since 2010, there have been no limits on the amount of cannabis a patient can carry in their private residence if they have a medical marijuana ID.

In February of 2009, The Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act was issued. If this bill were to pass, marijuana would be sold and taxed to adults aged 21 and older, bringing in over $1 billion in revenue annually. Tom Ammiano, who introduced the bill, stated:

“With the state in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the move towards regulating and taxing marijuana is simply common sense. This legislation would generate much needed revenue for the state, restrict access to only those over 21, end the environmental damage to our public lands from illicit crops, and improve public safety by redirecting law enforcement efforts to more serious crimes. …California has the opportunity to be the first state in the nation to enact a smart, responsible public policy for the control and regulation of marijuana.”

The bill did fail, until another chance was proposed in 2010. The Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act (Proposition 19) which supported once again legalizing recreational and collecting marijuana-related fees and taxes. Failing once again, the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act was rejected by California residents.

This initiative eventually made way in November 8, 2016, The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64) passed 57% to 43%, legalizing the sale and distribution of cannabis for adults 21 and older.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch (MCSB) is currently required to develop statewide standards, regulations, licensing procedures, and to address policy issues in support of medical cannabis manufacturers and testing laboratories. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control Is responsible for regulating commercial cannabis licenses for retailers, distributors, micro-businesses, testing laboratories, and temporary cannabis events.

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