Support it or not, there’s no denying that this was a watershed year for marijuana.
Within hours of the new year, the nation saw the first legally sanctioned sales of marijuana for recreational use in modern history. Throughout, states considered and often passed expanding access to the drug and, as recently as last weekend, Congress was interfering in D.C.’s pot policies and promising to stay out of the states.
Based on exchanges with pot advocates, here are 22 of the most significant moments for marijuana in 2014, most of them advancing the cause though the list includes a few notable setbacks.
1. Legal sales begin in Colorado (Jan. 1)
The year began with an historic moment: the first legally sanctioned sale of recreational marijuana in modern history. Buyers lined up at dispensaries throughout the state to take part in the historic moment, despite the occasional snow flurry. Swarmed by cameras and journalists at a planned media event, former Marine Sean Azzariti was among the first to make a purchase. He bought 3.5 grams of “Bubba Kush” for $40 and some pot-laced chocolate truffles for an additional $9.28.
2. Barack Obama: ‘I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol’ (Jan. 27)
In the Jan. 27 issue of the New Yorker, Editor David Remnick published a long piece based on a wide-ranging interview with President Barack Obama. In it, the president shared his thoughts on marijuana, which advocates felt gave legitimacy to their long-held argument that marijuana does relatively little harm.
When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion – the legalization of marijuana – he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
3. Congress allows hemp cultivation (Feb. 5)
The farm bill signed by the president Feb. 7 included a provision allowing colleges and state agencies in the handful of states where hemp cultivation is allowed to conduct research on the crop. The text of the provision was crafted in part by incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. By the fall, the state he represents, Kentucky, would become home to the first legal hemp harvest in decades.
4. CNN chief medical correspondent backs medical marijuana (March 6)
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta said he was “doubling down” on medical marijuana after initially opposing the drug altogether. “I am more convinced than ever that it is irresponsible to not provide the best care we can, care that often may involve marijuana,” he wrote in a commentary on the evolution of his beliefs. His reversal, and a special he starred in, added high-profile legitimacy to the argument for medical marijuana.
5. Poll finds more Americans identify tobacco, alcohol and sugar as “most harmful” (March 12)
A Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll finds that more Americans cite other commonplace substances as “most harmful,” confirming recent polls that have shown huge shifts in attitudes toward pot.
“When Americans were asked their opinion on the most harmful of four substances, tobacco (49 percent) and alcohol (24 percent) came in first and second place, followed by sugar (15 percent) and marijuana. Only 8 percent said marijuana was the most harmful substance,” the Journal reported.
6. Utah passes limited medical marijuana law (March 25)
Utah’s new medical marijuana law is significant not for what it does, but where it comes from. Though limited in scope, the law is a sign that medical marijuana is no longer as politically toxic as it once was among conservatives. The measure won the approval of the state’s Republican House, Senate and governor. Deep red North Carolina would pass a similarly limited measure in June.
7. Washington, D.C. , decriminalizes (March 31)
Washington Mayor Vincent Gray signs a bill that decriminalizes possession of marijuana (up to an ounce) in the district and imposes a $25 fine per offense, which advocates say is among the lowest in the country.
8. Maryland approves medical marijuana and decriminalizes possession (April 14)
Maryland became the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana, while also decriminalizing possession of the drug.
9. Minnesota approves medical marijuana (May 29)
Minnesota became the 22nd state to legalize medical marijuana.
10. New York approves medical marijuana (July 7)
New York became the 23rd state to allow medical marijuana.
11. Legal pot sales begin in Washington (July 8)
Washington became the second state to successfully implement pot legalization, with sales beginning about six months after they began in Colorado.
12. New York Times editorial board calls for an end to prohibition (July 27)
In a landmark six-part series, The New York Times editorial board called for the end of prohibition on marijuana, stating in no uncertain terms that “the federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”
13. Study: Medical marijuana laws associated with 25 percent fewer prescription overdose deaths (August 25)
A study published in the Aug. 25 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine finds that the annual number of deaths from prescription drug overdose is 25 percent lower in states with legal medical marijuana, giving credence to arguments that the drug has medical benefits and could save lives as an alternative to existing medicines.
14. Philadelphia becomes largest U.S. city to decriminalize marijuana possession (Oct. 20)
Philadelphia became the largest city in the country to decriminalize marijuana this fall.
15. Federal court considers whether marijuana should be classified as a Schedule I controlled substance (Oct. 27)
A federal judge granted a three-day hearing on whether marijuana should be classified in the same way as heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Advocates viewed the hearings as having historic significance, though it would hardly be the final say on the issue even if the judge did rule against the classification.
16. Two more states and Washington, D.C. vote to legalize (Nov. 4)
Voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., voted to legalize marijuana within their borders, not only doubling the number of states where voters have approved legalization, but also helping advocates in portraying such a policy shift as inevitable. They are already targeting a number of states in 2016.
17. Florida medical marijuana loses, with 58 percent of the vote (Nov. 4)
Despite a string of victories elsewhere and throughout the year, the marijuana movement suffered a setback on Election Day when a proposal to legalize medical marijuana failed to get the 60 percent of the votes needed to pass. However, the proposal did earn well beyond a simple majority, earning 58 percent support.
18. Native American reservations allowed to legalize marijuana (Dec. 11)
The Justice Department announced that it would no longer prosecute federal marijuana laws on reservations, even when state law bans the substance.
19. Congress blocks Washington, D.C. legalization (Dec. 13)
A Republican provision inserted into the $1.1 trillion spending deal bans the use of taxpayer funds to enact marijuana legalization, though city officials appear to be preparing for a showdown over legalization regardless.
20. Congress ends the ban on medical marijuana (Dec. 13)
At the same time that Congress meddled with D.C.’s legalization efforts, it agreed not to interfere with medical marijuana at the state level. The massive spending bill included a provision that bans the Justice Department from spending money to prosecute dispensaries or patients operating in accordance with state law.
21. Colorado approves $8 million for marijuana research (Dec. 17)
The Colorado Board of Health approved up to $8 million in grants to fund eight studies on medical marijuana, which the Denver Post described as “the largest-ever state-funded effort to study the medical efficacy of cannabis.”
22. Oklahoma and Nebraska are suing Colorado over marijuana legalization (Dec. 18)
The two states argue in a lawsuit before the Supreme Court that Colorado’s law unconstitutionally circumvents federal statute and interferes with their ability to uphold their own state laws.