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10 Unbelievable Times Laws Had Unintended Consequences

by Kieran Torbuck
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Many democratic countries have adopted a system where proposed new laws must be voted on, reviewed, and amended by many people before they can be enforced. At times, such systems can seem frustratingly slow, but this list will show that there is a very good reason for their thoroughness.

There have been many cases where a poor choice of words has technically outlawed things that the lawmakers surely did not intend to target, from computers to Christmas trees. It can happen the other way around, too. Ambiguous laws have accidentally legalized things that were banned and were meant to stay that way. Luckily for law-abiding citizens, but unluckily for criminals, these mistakes tend to get spotted before they are ever enforced.

Here are ten of the most fascinating times that poorly written laws have slipped through the cracks and the absurd consequences that could have happened had they not been noticed.

Related: Top 10 Outdated Laws You Didn’t Know You Were Breaking

10 Halifax, Nova Scotia Accidentally Banned Bees

Bees are unimaginably important to life on Earth. Not only do they make products such as honey, royal jelly, and beeswax, but they are so effective at pollinating plants that they are needed for up to a third of the world’s food production. Their importance has long been recognized; every major religion has sacred passages about them.

In 2016, another text that had a passage about them was bylaw A-700 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but it did not reinforce their importance as pollinators. In fact, it inadvertently banned managed bees from pollinating plants outside of their owner’s property. Unless, of course, their keeper put a harness on them and kept them on a leash. The bizarre length beekeepers would have to go to avoid violating the bylaw resulted from its wording.

Essentially, it banned any animals with owners from leaving the owner’s property without being on a leash or inside a cage. Although it did not mention bees specifically, bees kept by a beekeeper were technically animals with an owner. This escaped the notice of the Regional Council, which approved the bylaw, but an amendment was recommended shortly after.[1]

9 Florida Might Have Banned All Computers and Smartphones

The beekeepers in Halifax were right to be worried. Keeping bees is a pretty rare hobby, which means that the local authorities could easily have come after beekeepers for violations. However, to enforce a bill passed in Florida in 2013, the authorities would potentially have had to prosecute everyone in the state. The bill was supposed to stop illegal gambling, and it came in the wake of a scandal where gambling centers were found to be disguising themselves as internet cafes.

Those running the cafes had been taking advantage of the fact that the existing laws around gambling focused on slot machines, not computers and the Internet. Once they were found out, Florida legislators tried to update the definition of a slot machine. However, rushing to respond to the scandal, they ended up with a long and wordy new definition, which a lawsuit later alleged covered any device that “could” be used to play an illegal game on the internet.

Unknowingly, this included phones and laptops. It also claimed that the owners of such devices were presumed guilty, so it would have been up to them to prove that their device was not being used as a slot machine.[2]

8 Oklahoma Almost Banned the Ten Commandments

Another controversial case where lawmakers’ words cast a wider net than intended happened in 2010 in Oklahoma. In what a local law professor described as “a mess” that left him and others “laughing so we don’t cry,” an amendment seeking to ban Sharia law in the state also covered the Ten Commandments. The amendment, which some called “Save our State,” stopped judges from considering or referencing the laws of other countries and cultures when deciding cases.

People were quick to point out that the Ten Commandments fell under this definition, although this was not the main legal issue with it. A more serious concern was that it would confuse judges, who sometimes need to look into the international origins of American laws. The amendment made it unclear when and how they could do this. Judges might also need to consider international laws in cases involving contracts with foreign businesses. If they had not been allowed, foreign business partners would have been wary about doing business with the U.S.

In the end, the bill was struck down by a federal court. The final nail in the coffin was that, even though it was argued that the amendment would have applied to all religious laws, it singled out Sharia law and was ruled unconstitutional.[3]

7 New York Accidentally Abolished the Death Penalty

New York has historically had mixed feelings about the death penalty. It has been abolished and then reinstated multiple times, and it was even reinstated twice after the last execution took place there in 1963. Only a handful of prisoners received death sentences in the years following those reinstatements, and some remained on death row until 2007, when it was abolished once again.

But the strangest period in this back-and-forth relationship was arguably the year between 1860 and 1861 when New York unintentionally abolished the death penalty. It was unintentional because legislators had only meant to put an end to hanging as a method of execution. They did not mean to eliminate execution entirely, but they did not provide any alternative way to do it. To be fair, there were not many other ways they could offer.

In the past, they had used burning, firing squads, and breaking on the wheel. Still, these were not exactly humane, and the electric chair would not be invented for another three decades. With no specific execution method on the record, none could be carried out. However, the mistake was spotted and fixed a year later.[4]

6 Akron, Ohio Once Banned a Beloved Christmas Tree

During every Christmas season since First National Bank opened in Akron, Ohio, in 1931, its executives had dutifully gone on an excursion to find and bring back the perfect Christmas tree for their lobby. It could be up to 35 feet tall, and employees would decorate it over the following days with thousands of lights and ornaments. It became one of the city’s most beloved festive decorations. The bank even advertised it, and Santa Claus and singers were waiting to greet visitors who came to see it.

Except that is, in 1954, when, to everyone’s surprise, the chief fire warden refused to issue the bank a permit to display the tree. He pointed out that a measure passed by the city council that year specifically stated that trees could not be used to decorate windows or public spaces. When it was brought to their attention, the council was mostly sympathetic. The council president did not want to be seen as “outlawing Christmas,” so a week later, an amendment was passed that removed trees from the list of banned decoration materials.[5]

5 Florence, Oregon Accidentally Banned Sex

After they realized that they had mistakenly banned Christmas trees in public spaces, one of the councilors in Akron wanted to know why it had happened. “Is this one of those things we went along with without reading?” he asked. The answer appeared to be yes, as was also the case in the city of Florence, Oregon, a couple of decades later.

In 1977, the city council of Florence unwittingly voted through an ordinance that banned people from having sex anywhere in the city, no matter who they were with. The blanket ban was never meant to apply to what residents got up to in their own bedrooms. The council thought they were banning lewd activities in public. Still, no one seemed to have noticed that the wording of the measure banned sex “while in or in view of a public or private place.”

The mistake was spotted a few days later, forcing officials to reassure the public that the measure would not be enforced until it had been amended.[6]

4 Texas Might Have Once Banned Marriage

While the Florence sex ban took only days to spot, an alleged error in a 2005 amendment to the Texas Constitution took almost five years to be noticed. It was supposed to ban gay marriage, but the language banned the creation or recognition of “any legal status identical or similar to marriage.” Of course, marriage itself is identical to marriage. That meant, according to Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who spotted it, Texas had actually banned all marriage instead of only gay marriage.

Radnofsky was running for Texas Attorney General at the time and was up against the AG who had made the amendment, so her claim was dismissed by some of his supporters who argued that the intention of the amendment was clear. However, she claimed that the language used did not leave room for interpretation. And when language is clear “on its face,” courts are not meant to consider the intent behind it.

Radnofsky argued that this had the potential to cause big problems. However, nothing happened until the gay marriage ban was overturned in 2015.[7]

3 Santa Monica Briefly Approved Any Building

It is not only specific words that can cause trouble regarding laws, regulations, and the like. There are also problems when a smaller governing body falls out of compliance with a larger one, as the city of Santa Monica found out in 2022. With a housing shortfall of up to 3.5 million units, the state of California required cities to submit a plan explaining how they would meet housing goals. If the state did not approve the plan, the “builder’s remedy” kicked in.

This forced local officials to approve virtually any building project as long as some of the homes were offered to families on low or middle incomes. Santa Monica’s plan was rejected in February of that year but was not resubmitted until October—a big mistake. Sixteen projects totaling over 4,000 units were proposed during that span, more than double what had been built there in the last decade.

Some of the projects violated local zoning codes, but they could not technically be refused. Luckily for Santa Monica officials, nearly all were submitted by one developer with whom they were able to reach a settlement.[8]

2 The U.S. Accidentally Legalized Cannabis

In March 2024, the attorneys general of 22 states signed a letter that asked Congress to address “the glaring vagueness” of the Farm Bill passed in 2018. The bill legalized hemp production with the intention of seeing it become an agricultural commodity. Hemp is also the plant from which cannabis is taken. Still, the bill tried to prevent any problems this might cause by setting a limit on the amount of the intoxicating chemical, THC, that was allowed in industrial hemp.

Ultimately, it was a very low limit, just 0.3% by weight. For comparison, medicinal or recreational cannabis could be up to 30%. However, entrepreneurs spotted a couple of loopholes. One is that the bill focused on a single type of THC when others are also intoxicating. Another is that while 0.3% THC is not enough to have any effect if smoked, it is very potent if eaten.

In a short space of time, an enormous “gray market” of unregulated THC-infused products sprung up, prompting the letter from the 22 AGs to make it clear that hemp, by definition, must not be intoxicating.[9]

1 Hard Drugs Were Legal in Ireland for 24 Hours

For 24 hours, from the 10th to the 11th of March, 2015, the Republic of Ireland legalized many serious psychoactive drugs. These included MDMA, Valium, ketamine, and magic mushrooms. And no, Irish officials were not trying to see how The Purge movie concept would work in real life.

The 24-hour limit was because that was how long it would take for the government’s emergency legislation to kick in and make the drugs illegal again after the act that had banned them in the past was deemed unconstitutional. The Irish Court of Appeals decided that the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act had to be scrapped because it had been amended without the Irish parliament being consulted.

The government was prepared for the decision and already had an emergency amendment ready to be pushed through. However, under Irish law, it could only go into effect the day after it was signed. In the meantime, the possession of many drugs was technically legal. But 24 hours of potential mayhem was not the biggest challenge posed by the decision. It, of course, called into question many past convictions.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen