You’ve likely noticed cannabis’ new presence in your hometown: marijuana leaves on billboards, CBD stores popping up, or a dispensary opening down the street. But, cannabis has been present in the United States since before its founding. Hemp, which is fast growing and easy to cultivate, was valued by early colonists for its versatility, and was even used as legal tender in select states in the 1600s.
Cannabis also has a long history of use and cultivation by U.S. presidents; George Washington wrote about growing hemp and using it to alleviate tooth pain, Thomas Jefferson cultivated hemp and likely smoked while ambassador to France, and it’s widely accepted that James Madison once remarked that “hemp gave him the insight to create a new democratic nation.”
By the late 1800s, cannabis products were commonly sold in pharmacies and cultivation remained widespread until its criminalization in the 20th century.
The public’s perception began to change when immigrants escaping the Mexican Revolution popularized recreational use. Cannabis developed a racial stigma and opinions deteriorated further during the social unrest of the Great Depression. By 1931, it had been prohibited in all 29 states.
Propaganda, like the film Reefer Madness, stoked fear with depictions of cannabis-induced murder and insanity. The film and other similar depictions were widely circulated in the 1940s, likely contributing to stricter sentencing in the 1950s.
The 1970s saw an intensified fear of cannabis during President Nixon’s presidency. Although federal commissions suggested decriminalization, Nixon ignored these findings and designated cannabis a Schedule I drug, with no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
The last few decades have seen presidents increase federal drug abuse spending from $5 billion to $12 billion, mandates for life sentences for repeat offenders, and raids and seizures of cannabis- even in states that had legalized. And while many hoped that President Obama would change federal policy, he primarily left decisions to the states.
Despite cannabis’ negative image and association with heavier drugs, 1996 saw California’s Compassionate Use Act which allowed medicinal marijuana for patients with severe illnesses. The public’s perception of the plant began to change, but it would be almost two decades before real progress was made.
Today, 33 states allow for medicinal cannabis and 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana. Although California paved the way for medical use, Colorado and Washington were the first to legalize recreationally in 2012. Since it was signed into law, Colorado has earned over $1 billion in cannabis revenue, enticing more and more states to legalize. While it’s still illegal under federal law, it’s becoming likely that this will change - and change may be coming soon.
Polls show that a majority of Americans support cannabis, with 59% supporting full legalization and 32% favoring medicinal use only. Even President Trump has signaled his support, endorsing his “Right to Try Act” which would allow patients with terminal illnesses to seek cures that have not yet received FDA approval- like medicinal cannabis. Although only available to patients with a reasonable likelihood of death, this bill will allow legal medical marijuana nationwide.
The 2020 election may act as a catalyst for legalization with the possible beginning of a new administration. All but one Democratic candidate support legalization- Joe Biden.
Biden, who has a history of supporting tough penalties, has expressed his belief that marijuana may act as a “gateway drug,” leading to the use of stronger narcotics. Although he has proposed decriminalization, expungement of past convictions, and downgrading cannabis to a schedule II drug, full legalization may not be something he would be behind.
Despite the politics of taking a pro-cannabis stance, an increasing number of states are looking to 2020 for legalization, including Illinois and Maine which have already passed legislation. States like Arizona, New Jersey, and many more are currently in the process of full legalization with others, like Mississippi, making progress toward medicinal use.
But, while states continue to legalize, an illicit cannabis market still remains active. Licensed cannabis businesses must remain vigilant in securing their locations and proactively protecting their employees, customers, and products. There continues to be an increasing demand by the state to better safeguard these legitimate businesses without looking like a prison with high fences and armed guards. Cannabis businesses, especially dispensaries, want to be seen as welcoming and inviting retailers, without sacrificing the quality of security.
While cannabis may not be available in every state yet, it’s likely that it will have a legal presence nationwide, whether medicinal or recreational, within the next few years- and the cannabis security industry will only expand
Authors: Tony Gallo, Katharine Baxter