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2015: The Year of ‘Big Weed’ and the Mainstreaming of Marijuana

This year marijuana businesses and activists dragged marijuana further into mainstream life

Marijuana; Year in Drugs

Ohio struck down legal weed this year, but a number of states are poised to legalize in 2016.

Brennan Linsley/AP

When Americans go to the polls in November, they'll be voting for a new president, many crucial Senate races and the future of legalized marijuana. It appears that at least five states, including California, will be voting on whether the pot industry should be regulated like alcohol, with products available to all adults. Several more states, including some of the most reliably conservative, will vote on allowing medical weed.

As such, 2015 was an opportunity for marijuana businesses and activists to drag the plant further into mainstream life. Though pot companies face tight restrictions on advertising, they rolled out the green carpet to non-traditional marijuana users like seniors and parents in the form of Apple store-style dispensaries and attractively packaged, user-friendly products. Their efforts are bound to surface in ever more prominent ways as Election Day approaches. As the industry gears up, here's a look back at 2015.

Record Sales; Pot; Colorado

RJ Sangosti/Getty

January 1: Colorado Completes First Year of Legal Pot Sales

On New Year's Day, legal pot sales were underway in Colorado and Washington state and, as supporters liked to say, the sky hadn't fallen. In 2014, recreational and medical sales totaled $700 million in Colorado, and 2015 sales appear likely to show substantial gains.

The year started off with legalization poised to expand its geographic footprint as well. In November 2014, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., had voted for recreational weed.

Peter Thiel; year in pot

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 27: (CHINA OUT) Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal Inc., speaks during a forum themed on entrepreneurship and investment at China National Convention Center on February 27, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

ChinaFotoPress/Getty

January 8: Peter Thiel Invests in the Green Rush

Founders Fund, a venture capital firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, a big-deal investor known for his early bet on Facebook, invested millions in the cannabis-focused private equity fund Privateer Holdings. But speculation that mainstream money would pour into the green rush was premature. While companies continued to raise money, the Thiel investment was probably the most buzzed about deal of 2015. Privateer aims to develop global marijuana brands. Its companies include the website Leafly and Marley Natural, named for the Reggae legend.

Jamaica; Marijuana; decriminalized; year in drugs

A Jamaican Rastafarian known as Nature smokes marijuana for spiritual purposes outside the Trench Town Culture Yard Museum in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, where he works as a tour guide. Drug law amendments decriminalizing small amounts of pot and paving the way for a lawful medical marijuana sector came into effect Wednesday in Jamaica. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

David McFadden/AP

February 25: Jamaica Decriminalizes Marijuana

With legalization advancing in the U.S., Jamaica's parliament decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and approved programs that would allow medical use and scientific research. Marijuana use is widespread in the island nation thanks largely to Bob Marley and ganja's role in Rastafari. The law went into effect in April. In November, High Times hosted one of its Cannabis Cup gatherings in Jamaica.

420; Denver; Year in pot

Helen H. Richardson/Getty

April 20: Denver Celebrates Weed

In Denver, the annual 4/20 festivities included concerts by Redman, Method Man and Cypress Hill, plus a rally and at least one brunch pairing cannabis with crepes. Snoop Dogg also played the Mile High City; later in the year he launched Leafs by Snoop, one of several product lines with a celebrity figurehead. Other artists associating themselves with the green rush include Willie Nelson, who's also a prominent opponent of corporate pot, and Melissa Etheridge who sells a cannabis-infused "wine tincture."

Christie; Pot; Year in weed

Darren McCollester/Getty

July 28: Chris Christie Says No to Legalization

GOP presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie solidified his position as the most anti-legalization candidate in the 2016 field. "If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," he said at a town hall in New Hampshire. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws." Despite medical marijuana now being allowed in 23 states and Washington, D.C., it remains illegal federally, and the feds don't acknowledge any medical uses for the drug.

In November, Christie received some of the best press of his campaign for discussing addiction to cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, alcohol and prescription painkillers. "I'm pro-life," Christie said, referring to more than fetuses. It's been speculated that Republicans have been more sympathetic to treating the heroin crisis as a health matter because it's more likely to have personally touched their white supporters than marijuana arrests.

Fourth Corner Credit Union; year in Pot

A sign hangs over the door of a vacant building in which a credit union was going to be established to cater to the needs of the marijuana industry on Friday, July 31, 2015, in downtown Denver. A pair of lawsuits filed in Denver this week challenge recent decisions by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the National Credit Union Administration to deny applications from Fourth Corner Credit Union. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

David Zalubowski/AP

July 30: “Green” Credit Union Sues the Feds

The Denver-based Fourth Corner Credit Union, which hopes to provide financial services to marijuana companies, sued the Federal Reserve after it was denied a "master account" that would allow it to transact with other banks. Access to bank accounts remains a problem for many state-licensed marijuana businesses, which have to conduct much of their business in cash. This is a hassle, they say, and ensures that they remain attractive targets for thieves. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Marijuana; Edibles; Year in Drugs

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2014, file photo, smaller-dose pot-infused brownies are packaged at The Growing Kitchen in Boulder, Colo. Edible marijuana products in Colorado may soon come labeled with a red stop sign as the state is finalizing work on new rules for the appearance of edible marijuana. A draft of those rules released Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, would require each piece of edible marijuana to be marked in the shape of a stop sign with the letters THC in the middle. The letters stand for marijuana's psychoactive ingredient. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Brennan Linsley/AP

September 3: Denver Public-Use Initiative Is Dropped

Since legalization, many visitors to Colorado have noticed that unless they make special arrangements, there's almost no place where a tourist can smoke a joint; most hotels don't allow smoking, and consumption is forbidden in public. The situation isn't dire – edibles are just one workaround – but activists want to make room for businesses where users can indulge without an eye over their shoulder.

However, in September, activists shelved a Denver ballot initiative that, if approved, would have allowed limited use in bars and similar settings. With few exceptions, an Amsterdam-style "coffeehouse" scene remains unrealized in this country.

Bush; Jeb: Pot; Year in Pot

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush speaks during the Republican Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015. Republican presidential candidates collectively turned their sights on frontrunner Donald Trump at the party's second debate, taking aim at his lack of political experience and his sometimes abrasive style. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Frederic J Brown/Getty

September 16: Jeb Bush: “Sorry Mom,” I Smoked Pot

During the second GOP debate, onetime frontrunner Jeb Bush admitted to his already widely reported pot smoking as a teenager. The Marijuana Policy Project, which grades candidates on their views, recently bumped the former Florida governor up to a C- after he said the drug should be decriminalized. According to the group, the presidential candidates who have smoked pot include Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Bernie Sanders has also copped to smoking. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has said she never used.

Arrests; Year in Drugs 2015

Patrick T. Fallon/Getty

September 28: FBI: More Than 700,000 Marijuana Arrests in 2014

In the news, legalization had all the momentum this year. But data from the FBI revealed that there were just over 700,000 U.S. marijuana arrests in 2014, down only slightly from the peak of 775,000 in 2007. Of the 2014 arrests, 88 percent were for possession alone.

Studies have repeatedly shown that marijuana arrests disproportionately affect people of color. The ACLU says U.S. authorities spend $3.6 billion annually enforcing possession laws.

Marijuana; Oregon; Year in Drugs

A green cross shines in a window at Farma, a marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon, on October 4, 2015. As of Oct. 1, 2015 limited amounts of recreational marijuana became legal for all adults over the age of 21 to purchase in the state of Oregon. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Josh Edelson/Getty

October 1: Recreational Sales Begin in Oregon

The Beaver State started selling to all adults, and sales totaled $11 million in the first week. (The news quickly got buried by a fatal mass shooting at a community college in the state.)

States that saw their first medical dispensaries open in 2015 included Massachusetts, Illinois and Nevada.

Justin Trudeau; Marijuana; elected; Year in Drugs

Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau arrives at a victory rally in Ottawa on October 20, 2015. Canada is "back" on the world stage, newly-elected prime minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday after a landslide victory that ended nearly a decade of conservative rule. "I want to say to this country's friends all around the world, many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years," Trudeau told a rally. "On behalf of 35 million Canadians, we're back" AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Nicholas Kamm/Getty

October 18: Justin Trudeau is Elected in Canada, Pledging to Legalize

Justin Trudeau, whose campaign promises included a pledge to legalize, won election as prime minister of Canada. If he follows through, Canada would be by far the largest Western nation to make weed legal. Trudeau's father, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Canadian equivalent of John F. Kennedy, had also taken steps to legalize, though he eventually abandoned the plan.

Sanders; Legalization of Marijuana; Year in Drugs

FAIRFAX, VA - OCTOBER 28: Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a "National Student Town Hall" at George Mason University October 28, 2015 in Fairfax, Virginia. Sen. Sanders continued to campaign for the Democratic nomination. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Alex Wong/Getty

October 28: Bernie Sanders Calls for Ending Federal Pot Ban

Speaking at George Mason University, Bernie Sanders called for an end to the federal ban on marijuana. "I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses," Sanders said. "We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana."

Hillary Clinton, Sanders' rival for the Democratic nomination, soon called for the drug to be removed from its current classification as a schedule I drug, a category that includes LSD, heroin and other substances deemed not to have medical benefits.

Ohio; Marijuana; Year in Drugs

Buddie, the mascot for the pro-marijuana legalization group ResponsibleOhio, waits on a sidewalk to greet passing college students during a promotional tour bus at Miami University, Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Oxford, Ohio. A ballot proposal before Ohio voters this fall would be the first in the Midwest to take marijuana use and sales from illegal to legal for both personal and medical use in a single vote. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

John Minchillo/AP

November 3: Ohio Says No to Legal Pot

On Election Day, Ohio voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have written legal, medical and recreational marijuana into the state constitution. While legalization in the big Midwestern swing state would have been a coup for the movement, the loss was not seen as much of a setback.

The initiative would have essentially granted indefinite control of growing in the state to a group of ten companies that had paid for the political campaign to pass it. One investor said it would deliver a "tsunami of money" to those few supporters. The arrangement turned off voters, including some who support legalization. In Ohio, as in much of the nation, polls show that large majorities support some form of medical marijuana, and a slimmer margin favor recreational use.

Mexico;Marijuana; Legal; Year in Drugs

Supreme Court Justices discuss a challenge to the constitutionality of a ban on recreational marijuana use in Mexico City, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Mexico's court ruled Wednesday that growing, possessing and smoking marijuana for recreation are legal under a person's right to personal freedoms. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Eduardo Verdugo/AP

November 4: Mexican High Court Clears Path to Legalization

Mexico's highest court declared that growing and distributing marijuana for personal use is a human right, opening a legal route to legalization.

In Mexico, traffic in illegal drugs to the U.S. has enabled corruption and fueled many cycles of horrific violence. The group pushing for legalization took a different approach, arguing that "the government is infringing on the constitutional doctrine of the free development of personality."

Marijuana; year in Drugs

Customers line up for "Green Friday" deals at the Grass Station marijuana shop on Black Friday in Denver, Colorado November 28, 2014. This is the first Black Friday since marijuana was legalized in Colorado January 1, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS) - RTR4FZBV

Rick Wilking/Reuters

November: Prominent Pot Activist Quits

As legalization has advanced and sales have grown, the plant looks more like a business that would be of interest to big alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical companies and those in other fields. This been a concern for legalization opponents, who say Big Weed companies will be rich and powerful enough to mislead the public or distort the science of pot's negative effects.

In early November, Dan Riffle, the Marijuana Policy Project's federal policy director and a longtime activist, quit his job, emailing colleagues to say that "industry is taking over the legalization movement and I'm not interested in the industry." Around the same time, the group announced a fund drive called Pledge 4 Growth, which would allow participating companies to donate 0.420 percent of their gross revenue to advancing legalization.

Sean Parker; Napster; Marijuana; Year in Drugs 2015

Bloomberg's Best Photos 2012: The Newsmakers. Time after time in 2012, Bloomberg photographers came through with striking, pointed, poignant and just plain beautiful images -- From Jamie Dimon in the U.S. and Bob Diamond in the U.K. testifying to governmental committees, to Sheldon Adelson surrounded by lion dancers in Macau, China, to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates at the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, see their work here in Newsmakers. FILE PHOTO: "BEST PHOTOS OF 2012" (***BESTOF2012***): Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster Inc. and managing partner of the Founders Fund, stands for a photograph following a television interview on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. The 42nd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum will be attended by about 2,600 political, business and financial leaders at the five-day conference. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Simon Dawson/Getty

The Year Ahead: Get Ready for the Deluge

In 2015, the green industry began to look more like any other industry, but this was mere preparation for what we can expect in 2016, when a slate of full and medical legalization measures are expected to appear before tens of millions of voters.

California, which has allowed medical use since 1996, will command the most attention. While it's possible that more than one initiative will appear before voters there, support has begun to consolidate around an initiative spearheaded by Napster founder and tech world gadfly Sean Parker.

In 2010, Californians voted down full legalization, in part because it did not have full support from pot growers in the state's northern Emerald Triangle region. Since then legalization has passed in several states, and the prospect of holding the vote in a presidential election year, when the electorate skews younger, has supporters bullish. If legalization opponents are going to take a stand, California could be their last chance.