Alaska Legalized Marijuana 39 Years Ago, and Three More Surprising Pieces of Pot History

Most Americans want pot to be legal, and the next couple of months will likely bring more proof of that as voters throughout the country consider some groundbreaking ballot measures this election season. State by state and city by city, pot-friendly policies—ranging from legalization to decriminalization to medical marijuana access—are edging their way across the nation. For one, Florida is poised to approve a medical marijuana program, which is a huge move in the pot-wary South. And inspired, no doubt, by the successes of Colorado and Washington, Oregon’s voters have placed an initiative on their upcoming ballot to legalize and regulate pot for adult use. The initiative has a fairly good chance of passing, though polls are still less than definitive. Alaska also has an initiative to legalize weed, which would be the first time the plant was sellable and taxable in the state. However, it wouldn’t change much else for Alaskans, because the state technically legalized pot almost four decades ago.

As marijuana laws loosen and shift in the U.S. and the rest of the world, it's a reminder that our memories are pretty short when it comes to drug policy and use. The systems and assumptions that govern our relationship with mind- and body-altering substances are ever-shifting and up for debate. Many of the things we consider cutting-edge today are really just echoes of a not-so-distant past. 

Here’s the story of Alaska’s pot policy kerfuffle and three other historical facts you probably didn’t know about the world's favorite drug.

1. It’s true, Alaska technically legalized pot in 1975.

People in Alaska consistently report using marijuana more frequently than any other state, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This could be partially due to the fact that personal use and possession of the plant are already legal there. As the Washington Post recently reported, Alaska’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the right to possess, cultivate and consume small amounts of marijuana in one's personal home in 1975. The court case Ravin v. State, concluded with the judge citing the right to privacy listed in the state’s constitution.

As Washington Post notes, and as you might have guessed, “that ruling has faced some opposition over the years, and has been placed into legal limbo from time to time due to various ballot and legislative challenges. But Alaska courts have repeatedly and consistently upheld the notion that Constitutional privacy protections cover the personal possession, cultivation and use of marijuana in Alaska.”

Jason Brandeis, University of Alaska law professor, concluded in what the Post calls “an exhaustive history of Alaska marijuana law," that Alaskans can possess up to four ounces of pot “in their homes for personal use,” to this day. They can also cultivate up to 25 plants under state law, according to Brandeis, but—as remains true anywhere in the U.S.—they remain at risk of federal prosecution.

Alaskans will vote on a ballot measure in November to decide whether to openly legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol. The move would tax the sale of the herb and clear up lingering legal gray areas as far as the herb’s legality.

2. The first state to legalize medical marijuana was also the first state to ban marijuana.

While most weed enthusiasts cite the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 as the first official pot prohibition in the U.S., it actually started decades prior in California, of all places. The Golden State quietly banned the weed in 1913, via an anti-narcotics law passed by the state’s Board of Pharmacy as “an obscure technical amendment,” according to a historical post on the website for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. The move was in line with a wave of anti-narcotics legislation in the early Progressive Era.

NORML writes, “Inspired by anti-Chinese sentiment, California was a nationally recognized pioneer in the war on drugs. In 1875, it instituted the first known anti-narcotics law in the U.S., a San Francisco ordinance against opium dens.”

Later, in 1991, California became the first state to recognize marijuana’s medicinal benefits and legalize medical marijuana. Today, almost half of the states (23 plus Washington D.C.) have medical marijuana laws in place. While California’s  medical marijuana program is hugely popular (1 in 20 adults there have used the program) and successful, the state has yet to pass a recreational legalization law.

3. American farmers were once required to grow hemp.

Cultivation of hemp, a non-intoxicating cousin of cannabis sativa, has been outlawed in the U.S. for decades. The newly enacted Farm Bill is the first time since that national policy has eased up on hemp farming. It allows states that have legalized hemp farming to begin growing the crop for research purposes.

But before hemp was so tightly regulated, it was celebrated as one of the most useful crops in existence. A 1619 law passed in Jamestown, Virginia Colony, actually required farmers to grow hemp. As an article in Farm Collector describes it: “Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans in the form of seed for planting and as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed.”

By the middle of the 17th century, the crop had become key to the early American economy. “The Colonies produced cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from hemp during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Most of the fiber was then destined for British consumption, although at least some was used for domestic purposes. Ironically, the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were penned on hemp paper,” Farm Collector notes.

Hemp fiber was so important to the young republic that farmers were compelled by patriotic duty to grow it, and were allowed to pay taxes with it. George Washington grew hemp and encouraged all citizens to sow hemp widely. Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties, and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.

4. The ancient Egyptians used cannabis to treat tumors—and they were onto something big.

An ancient Egyptian text called the 2nd-century Fayyum Medical Papyrus, contains the earliest known record of cannabis use as a cancer medicine. The text doesn’t provide much information about whether or not the treatments were successful, but the chances are good. Today, the use of cannabis is widely cited in the successful reduction of cancerous tumors. Scientists all over the world have conducted studies to show the efficacy of certain concentrations of the plant in treating specific cancers.

Countless cancer patients report success from using highly concentrated medical marijuana oils to reduce or completely reverse tumors and skin cancers, and research in the UK recently found that cannabis can prevent the growth and spread of cancer in mice. Studies in Spain and elsewhere have turned out similar results.


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