Growing up on the East Coast, my first experiences with cannabis felt—to some degree—rebellious.
In order to get away with smoking, I had to go to great lengths to avoid strict laws and biased people. This would, inevitably, lead me deep into the dense New England woods or on to private property in which the person(s) of ownership was comfortable with me getting high. It should be noted that these types of people were often difficult to come by.
At the age of 20, I hopped on a plane and found a new home in San Francisco, California. Immediately, I was hit with the warm welcome of culture shock. At the time, marijuana was still illegal, but, I soon realized that pot’s illegal status didn’t stop people from toking up wherever and whenever they wanted. There seemed to be an abundance of weed floating around the city ,and it was all so easily accessible. Never before in my time as a pot-smoker had I experienced so much liberation.
And this is what I’d like to discuss within this article.
I’m keenly aware that the freedom I felt upon moving to California is something many East Coast stoners still strive for. Though states like Maine and Massachusetts have legalized weed, the rest of the East—especially those in the South—lack the socially liberal state of mind and physical legal aspects that are so plentiful in the West.
Through years of hard work from lawmakers, activists and culture enthusiasts, we can get a better sense about why the present has shaped itself this way. And just maybe, we can get some insight as to how the future of the industry will stand in different areas of the country.
The Rise of Weed on the West
As we know, hemp was a legal cash crop for a good majority of history and used in certain places for medicinal means. Then, around the 1930s, governments began laying down laws that considered pot an evil narcotic. It wasn’t until 1973, when particular states began to decriminalize the substance as a way to ease off the number of arrests being made.
Over two decades later, cannabis began to see light for its healing purposes once again.
Starting in California, in 1996, voters passed Proposition 215, legalizing medicinal marijuana. This was faced with a penalty, as the United States federal government felt it was against the law to promote the use of Schedule I narcotics, which was defended under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Luckily, the U.S. Supreme Court said otherwise—with the explanation that, at the time of the act, cannabis had seen no potential for medicinal use. This decision would change history entirely.
There were still other complications in the years to follow—such as the 2005 case of Gonzales v. Raich. This was some time after marijuana had begun to boom within the state of California. Medicinal businesses were opening up doors all throughout the state, people were earning a living by growing it under a legal certification and doctors had found a way to make income by (practically) giving out medical cards to patients.
With all this, weed was cultivated beyond the limits of the law.
But even when the law tried to take on medical cannabis—as with Gonzales v. Raich, in which medicinal cannabis businesses were deemed federally unlawful—marijuana still won. The defense claimed that the businesses were all working under California’s legal limits, and the popularity of disagreements brought more attention to the subject. Even with this legal interference, people began realizing that California was becoming the marijuana capital of the nation.
Yet, what really changed the game was the fact that since weed was now legal to grow and sell, people of interest within the industry had the freedom to experiment with the way they cultivated the crop. This is when the THC count began to rise. Researchers speculate multiple reasons for the escalation of potency.
- Growers and business were realizing that the higher the THC count the more you could charge.
- Many smokers were developing tolerances that required a plant that got them higher.
- CBD counts substantially lowered when people began planting more sinsemilla (a type of cannabis with more THC).
When we combine the rise of THC counts with the liberal attitudes about marijuana in California, we get a sense as to why it blew up so much in popularity and why the West Coast, inevitably, became the weed mecca of the country.
However, it doesn’t give us insight as to why legal pot isn’t as popular on the East Coast. It can be assumed that the states are merely more strict with their laws, but that simple explanation doesn’t seem to fit—especially when you consider all the money and good that has been made out of the legal marijuana market.
The Stagnation of the East Coast
With legalization appearing in Massachusetts and Maine, it seems as though the Atlantic side of America has finally taken its first steps towards legalization. The whole upper half of the coast has been fairly lenient in recent years when it comes to getting high. Laws have either been lightened (or have been less enforced), and the medical profits have been rising steadily.
I started smoking pot while living in Connecticut and had my fair share of stoned run-ins with police. For the most part, they usually didn’t write me a ticket or try to send me to jail. Rather, they’d throw my weed out, give me a quick ramble as to why I shouldn’t smoke, then leave. Only on one occasion did I get penalized: a $300 fine for possession of less than an ounce and paraphernalia, along with a suspended license for six months.
I consider myself lucky in the sense that my one penalization was all I had to experience after four years of consistently smoking illegal pot. Reason being that the south eastern area of America is 10 times stricter with its marijuana laws. I wasn’t aware of the severity of the situation until I began talking to fellow stoners from that area.
For the most part, even medical marijuana remains illegal throughout the South, and the penalties for getting caught are highly enforced.
For example, if caught in Alabama with anywhere of up to an ounce, you could be facing a year in prison plus a $6,000 fine. Residents of Kentucky face the same consequence, even though it’s one of the five leading states for growing cannabis. And from what I’ve been told, the police in the area aren’t afraid to enforce such sanctions.
With this information, one question comes to mind: Why are laws so strict in one part of America, while so lenient in another?
Part of it has to do with the history of each area.
When we look at California, we can keep in mind the flower children of San Francisco who popularized marijuana in the ’60s. And even though it took half a century for lawmakers to make it recreationally legal, the opportunity was brought upon by liberal mindsets that were contained within generations. Therefore, making most of the people living in the area more lenient on the matter of cannabis. The South never had this sort of history backing it up and consequently, are well behind on legalization.
Many politicians in southern states have trouble simply finding the opportunity to bring about legalization in their part of the country. Being that weed is a billion-dollar industry, there are plenty of state politicians highly interested in passing marijuana reform bills. For example, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, has attempted to find his state’s share of this ever-growing income—to no avail.
With cannabis still a Schedule I drug, federal law puts our favorite herb in the same category as heroin; and the feds have no intention of being lenient with that classification.
To top that off, there are also many state legislators who don’t feel that their residents are ready for recreational use. Arizona is is a prime example, as the people attempted to pass the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Proposition 205) in 2016. Unfortunately, the state felt it didn’t have enough history with marijuana—medicinal pot only being around for seven years old in the Grand Canyon State—therefore, the legalization initiative didn’t pass.
As mentioned with California, much of the problems occurring with marijuana are largely due to the history of the state. Some places have had experience with medicinal cannabis—or, at least, residents protesting greatly for marijuana—while other states have had little care for reform and don’t mind keeping it that way.
The legalization we are seeing in certain areas is largely due to our efforts as citizens of this country. Without our struggle to bring marijuana to where it is today, we’d still be seeing a huge number of imprisonments for holding onto a couple of grams (and in some states, we still do).
With this in mind, the only way to push cannabis legalization throughout the entire United States—to places where it isn’t legal—the people of individual states must stand up and speak for themselves.
With the federal law continuously saying no, there will be no progress without the effort of citizens. I hope together, we can change America.
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