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Why the East Coast has less cannabis access than the West Coast

(© isavira –

As of this writing, 15 states plus Washington, D.C. allow for adults to consume cannabis recreationally — and of those, more than half are on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. The West Coast has adopted more progressive cannabis regulations at a much more rapid rate than other regions of the U.S., causing many to wonder: Why? What is it about the West Coast that has allowed cannabis laws to flourish — or, perhaps a better question, what is it about the East Coast that has been so resistant to cannabis culture?

The West is known for being wild

As Europeans “settled” America’s East Coast, much of the West remained unexplored and unknown for centuries. Colonists and eventually American citizens would hear stories from trappers and trekkers about the relatively untouched lands west of the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, stories of strange indigenous people and unfamiliar animals. Many Americans — driven by curiosity, opportunity or something else — began moving westward themselves.

Even as the West became more populated by white Americans and Europeans, it maintained its reputation as an untamed space. The wildness of the West tended to attract misfits and iconoclasts who failed to thrive in existing society and who wanted a place to be themselves without existing social pressures or expectations. What’s more, life in the West was much more difficult than life in the East until well into the 20th century; the West lacked a stable culture and social system as well as fundamental infrastructure for cities, so those living in the West were largely compelled to rely on their own individual strengths and abilities.

Even today, the American West has a strong culture of independence. Though more West Coast cities boast higher populations than many East Coast metropolises, Western cities tend to be sprawling because so many West Coast Americans crave personal space and privacy. West Coasters typically don’t rely on neighbors for much support, and many West Coasters don’t harbor many expectations for the government. In fact, states in the American West tend to rely more on direct democracy — where citizens vote directly on issues instead of relying on representatives to develop laws. This can help to spur societal change when otherwise issues might get held up by a bickering congress.

In the 20th century, this strong individualism and independence was compounded by an influx of youth culture. In the mid-1900s, young people around the country were dissatisfied with existing culture to a significant degree, and many searched for a place more accepting of counterculture attitudes and behaviors. Young people flocked to the West Coast, and even today, the West tends to have a  younger median age than the East. A younger culture is typically more accepting of alternative lifestyles — to include cannabis consumption.

As early as the 1950s, cannabis culture had caught on in California, despite aggressive anti-marijuana propaganda from the establishment of the East. Cities in the West were among the first to take steps to decriminalize cannabis possession, and West Coast states rapidly adopted medical marijuana regulations at the turn of the 21st century. Even today, Western states that are not notoriously progressive in their politics — Montana, South Dakota, Alaska, Nevada — have legalized recreational cannabis for adult use, demonstrating that the West remains as wild as ever.

The East Coast is slower to change

Progressive ideologies typically coalesce near the coasts and in larger cities, where there tends to be greater diversity in population. The East Coast has been more populous than the West Coast since the earliest days of colonization, and the East has driven American culture for much of the lifespan of the United States. New York, in particular, has been known as a bastion of liberal thought for centuries — and yet New York still lacks recreational cannabis policy.

This is perhaps because the East Coast’s culture is older and much more established than the culture of the American West. Thus, politicians and citizens are more likely to wait and watch as other states take the great leap into legalization, learn from their mistakes and adopt more sensible cannabis reform in due time.

Already, the East Coast is waking up to the wonders of cannabis legalization. As of this writing, both Massachusetts and New Jersey have recreational laws on the books, and states like Vermont and Maine are finally mobilizing their long-held legalization directives from voters. The Southeast is taking tentative steps toward decriminalization and medical marijuana legalization — largely thanks to pressure for higher tax revenues. Though cannabis law has been slow to come to the East, it is finally on its way in.

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