Terence Hallinan: Fighter for the People and for the Legalization of Marijuana 

Terence Hallinan is dead at 83, but his spirit goes marching on in San Francisco and way beyond the city where he practiced law and served as district attorney for seven years. As the son of Reds during the Cold War and McCarthy years, I felt a natural affinity with Terence and also a sense of camaraderie. He leaves behind a big legacy, certainly bigger than mine, and many others of his generation who made names for themselves in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Marijuana is a big part of Terence’s big story that in some ways began before he was born, as the son of notorious lefties, Victor and Vivian Hallinan. Not long ago, I interviewed Terence at his home in Petaluma. Here are some of the highlights from his comments.

I love San Francisco, but it is the greatest NIMBY city. Take marijuana, for example. People say it will bring crime to their neighborhood and lower property values. Not true.

My dad, Victor, was, as you know, a lawyer, and didn’t smoke anything, but he said if people want to use marijuana they should be able to do so. He was in federal prison in 1948 and helped to segregate it. He served six months for contempt for defending union organizer, Harry Bridges. He was also indicted for income tax evasion. The government wanted to put him away.

He was quite a character! So was Denis Peron. He and I were largely responsible for medical marijuana in San Francisco. I once ran against Denis for supervisor and still we remained friends. Harvey Milk won the seat we both sought. Marijuana really came into the city because of all the people who were suffering from AIDS, HIV and cancer. We are all benefiting from them. Years ago, Denis put something on the ballot to make enforcement of the marijuana laws the lowest possible priority. We held a hearing and it was mind blowing. Doctors, scientists and hemophiliacs came and testified and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

A committee recommended to the full board of supervisors that arrests for marijuana should become the lowest priority for law enforcement. There was almost no opposition to it. The board of supervisors passed a resolution recommending that the police do so and so. For a time, I used to go to Denis’s place on Church Street. It was a humanitarian place. A lot of people would have died alone, but there on Church Street they could have food and smoke marijuana. Then, I was elected supervisor and I got nervous about going to his club and didn’t.

Back in the day, my dad, Victor, had clients who were arrested for marijuana. It had already been around by the time he practiced law, and I smoked it in the 1950s. I knew a kid who had access to it. The pot was from Mexico, I imagine. It was also around when I was in law school. I graduated in 1964 and then I was refused admittance to the California bar because I was arrested in civil rights and anti-war protests. Finally, I was admitted to the bar in December 1966 and started to practice law in January 1967.

My dad swore me in. I was admitted by virtue of a court decision, Hallinan vs. Bar Examiner. It was an important decision for law students arrested in civil rights and anti-war activities. My dad had tried to keep me in some restraint, but that was difficult. Protest ran in the family. My parents felt very felt strongly about civil rights. My mother, Vivian, was a grand peacenik and good friends of Decca’s. [Jessica Mitford]

I was arrested 14 times in California and in Mississippi, though I have no idea how many total number of times I have been arrested. I was never arrested for marijuana. As a kid, I became a sports maniac and then did no drugs at all when I was an athlete. I loved sports and got into clean living.

I was San Francisco district attorney from 1996 to 2003. I never sent anyone to prison because of marijuana. In fact, I promoted medical marijuana and tried to facilitate the establishment of marijuana clubs. There were robberies of those places and I slammed those guys! Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve learned that the Law changes very slowly and so does some thinking.

Many people have a hard time thinking marijuana is not a deadly drug, though I have no doubt of its medicinal value. I remember I did a marijuana case on the grounds that it was part of a man’s religion. Frank Werber was a Jewish guy. You know, cannabis has a long history that goes back to Hannibal and the Zoroastrians. People have used it for thousands of years to communicate with God. It’s a personal decision to come out of the marijuana closet or not. Over my lifetime it has become more and more acceptable.

A San Francisco police officer smoked it publicly. He was known as “Officer Sunshine.” Richard Burgess was his real name – smoked on steps of Hall of Justice and was busted. A lot of cannabis cases raise Constitutional issues the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments: search and seizure, due process and self-incrimination. Hail, hail the Bill of Rights!

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.