By Jonathan P. Caulkins for National Affairs. The revolution in the legal status of marijuana has been rapid and dramatic. Four decades ago, there was a universal prohibition against buying, selling, using, and possessing marijuana. Then, several local and state jurisdictions began to adopt a range of more lenient policies toward marijuana users — eventually including decriminalization and de facto legalization in some jurisdictions.

Three decades ago, large-scale production for profit was banned essentially everywhere. But that, too, began to change. In the 1990s, several states introduced “medical marijuana” programs. Though marijuana use was made legal only for medical purposes, the regulations were often so loose that essentially anyone could get a physician’s “recommendation,” authorizing that person to purchase marijuana. Suppliers were euphemistically called “caregivers” (even though some never met the “patients” they were caring for), and they sold out of brick-and-mortar retail stores known as “dispensaries.” At one point, there were thousands of dispensaries in California alone.

The medical ruse was superseded only in 2012, when voters in Colorado and Washington state passed propositions allowing large-scale commercial production for non-medical use, and the Obama administration announced an official policy of non-interference (within broad limits), despite the fact that all such activity violates the federal Controlled Substances Act. In 2014, Alaska and Oregon joined Colorado and Washington, and several more states are expected to legalize marijuana within the next year.

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