Today, both medicinal and recreational use of marijuana is legal in California. Since the legalization of recreational marijuana use, there has been a significant increase in use rates in the state.

How Has Marijuana Legalization Affected Marijuana Use and Addiction Rates in California?

A 2018 study from BDS Analytics, a cannabis market trend and research group, provided some insight into legalization’s impact on marijuana use in California. The study shows a significant, but not dramatic, increase in marijuana use among adults, with active consumers accounting for about 29 percent of adults, up from 23 percent in 2017. The study also revealed some surprising habits of active marijuana users, with many individuals choosing to use marijuana throughout the day.

While there is limited research on how marijuana legalization has affected the use of other drugs and addiction rates solely in California, there is substantial ongoing research indicating that states with any type of medical marijuana laws have lower rates of opioid drug overdoses and opioid addiction. In fact, a 2014 report published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that states with medical marijuana laws had almost a quarter fewer fatal opioid overdose deaths than those without such laws.

This may be because opioids act as a painkiller and are prescribed to treat pain. Similarly, one of the most common reasons marijuana is prescribed to patients is to treat pain. In states where medical marijuana is available, individuals with pain conditions can choose medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids.

Two newer studies also support the theory that opioid addiction and overdose rates decline in areas where medical marijuana is available.”

One study found that Medicare users filled 14 percent fewer opioid prescriptions after medical marijuana laws were passed in their state. Another found that Medicaid enrollees filled 40 fewer opioid prescriptions per 1,000 people after medical marijuana became available in their state. In the second study, even more, significant drops in opioid use were present in states that legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use.

The State of Marijuana in California

California has long been considered one of the most marijuana-friendly U.S. states. It was the first state to initiate a (failed) ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in 1972. Since then, it has been at the forefront of progressive marijuana policies.

For decades, it has served as home to most of the country’s illegal cannabis farms, often as local authorities turned a blind eye. In 1996, it became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. In 2016, California voters legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Today, as in some other states, any adult with a valid ID can enter a recreational marijuana dispensary in California and purchase weed easily and securely without risk of facing legal penalties or investigation. In many counties, residents can also grow their own marijuana, or with special permits, they can grow marijuana to be sold to other individuals or dispensaries.

While in the past, California’s weed laws were considered controversial or even “out there,” other states are now becoming more progressive with their marijuana legislature. Today, 10 states, along with Washington D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, and 33 states have legalized medical marijuana.

According to a 2018 poll from Pew Research Center, about 68 percent of Americans support marijuana legislation. In 2018, Canada legalized recreational marijuana as well.

Even as other states advance their marijuana legislation or discuss changes, California remains a unique state to study in terms of marijuana and drug policy. It’s a huge and diverse state, with a large population of individuals who use and abuse a wide range of substances.

A Brief History of Marijuana Legalization in California

California was actually the first state to specifically prohibit marijuana. It did so in a 1913 addendum to the Poison Act of 1907, which was initially enacted to prohibit the use or sale of opiates like opium or morphine without a prescription.

The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act prohibited cannabis at the federal level, except for specific medicinal and industrial uses. The act was, in part, a reaction to an influx of Mexican immigrants after the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Anti-immigrant messaging portrayed marijuana as a dangerous drug brought over by Mexicans, causing violence and mania.

The law was also promoted by William Rudolph Hearst who campaigned against hemp being used as a paper and pulp alternative and by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The bureau was led by Harry Anslinger who went on a nationwide campaign against cannabis as he spread racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric to support his anti-marijuana views.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 repealed the Marihuana Tax Act but replaced it with stricter anti-drug regulations, including further prohibition of cannabis and marijuana.

In 1972, a ballot initiative, Proposition 19, became the first attempt at California independently legalizing marijuana. It failed, with a final count of 33.5 percent for, and 66.5 percent against, but it would be an important step in progressive marijuana policy.

After the initiative didn’t pass, George Moscone (who represented San Francisco in one of the only legislative districts that had voted for its approval) created the California Senate Select Committee on the Control of Marijuana. The committee began the first strategized study on the social and financial impact of marijuana prohibition.

In 1975, Moscone, who later went on to become San Francisco’s mayor, introduced California Senate Bill 95. It was signed into law by Jerry Brown during his first term as governor. The law downgraded minor marijuana possession from a possible felony to a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100. It was created after Moscone’s committee found that 90 percent of all marijuana arrests were for possession, and these cases were costing California over $100 million each year. The bill was highly controversial at the time, with the Chief of the Los Angeles police falsely warning the law’s passage would result in a doubled crime rate and double the number of heroin addicts.

In 1996, with Proposition 215, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Arizona had voted to legalize medical marijuana previously, but there was red tape that ultimately nullified the voting. It was a landmark decision. After 60 years of total prohibition, marijuana could be legally used by anyone who could attain a prescription for it.

A 2003 bill, Senate Bill 420, further clarified marijuana legislation. In 2010, Senate Bill 1449 further downgraded marijuana possession to a ticket-style infraction.

In 2010, Proposition 19, which sought to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults over the age of 21, lost by a narrow margin. Two years later, recreational marijuana became legal in Washington and Colorado.

The Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation was established in 2015 to regulate the growing and sales of medical marijuana. In 2016, the Bureau’s first “pot czar” was appointed, in part to strategize the groundwork for recreational legalization.

In 2016, recreational use of marijuana became legal with the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

Other Effects of Marijuana Legalization in California

Stigma: The BDS Analytics study made it clear that, at least in California, the past stigma of marijuana use — the stereotype of the “lazy stoner,” for example — is quickly fading as marijuana use becomes more accepted and widespread. According to the study, 53 percent of active marijuana consumers work full-time jobs and have an average income nearing $70,000.

Taxes: While the legalization of marijuana has resulted in significant financial gains for the government — a $471 million profit is expected in 2019 — the numbers have been far lower than anticipated, in part because the legal market is burdened with heavy taxes that make it hard to compete with the black market.

Tensions between dispensaries, growers, and communities: Growing and dispensary regulations vary by county. Even in areas where dispensaries and growing are legal, some neighbors and communities are unhappy with the smell, traffic, and proximity to marijuana use and sales.


In general, Californians have long been more accepting of marijuana use than many other states in the country. A recent study after the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016 reveals that more adults in California are consuming marijuana and that the stigma once associated with pot use is fading.

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