Toward a Revolution in the Cannabis Revolution: Marijuana 25 Years After Prop 215

Photograph Source: Bob Dass – CC BY 2.0

Who hasn’t heard the quip, “History is written by the victors”?  Whether it’s true or not has been debated for decades if not longer than that. More to the point, how do we separate the winners from the losers? Who, for example, has won and who has lost the War on Drugs, which has always been from the get-go a war on people, families and communities. No speaker at the podium popped that crucial question at an all-day event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage in 1996 of Prop 215, the Compassionate Care Act, which ushered in the era of legal medical marijuana.  215 also seemed to drive a nail in the coffin of the Drug War, which Nixon initiated in the early 1970s and that every president, including Clinton and Obama, fueled for the next fifty years, Thanks, guys. I’m glad I voted for you. You turned out to be no better than Bush I and Bush II.

The celebration took place at the General’s Residence at Fort Mason in San Francisco, which is federal property. That meant that there were no signs for the event. Marijuana, whether medical or recreational, is still illegal with the feds, and so advertising for anything related to marijuana is also illegal. No signs of any kind were outside the building. Inside, I did not see anyone smoking marijuana and didn’t smell it either, though marijuana passed from hand to hand, quietly, surreptitiously. A woman I had never seen or met before, and who said she lived and grew weed in Humboldt gave me several ounces which I took home. I haven’t tried it yet. I will. It’s part of my research.

The program for the event, which was sponsored by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), listed the names of 76 deceased opponents of the Drug War: activist Dennis Peron; lawyer  and SF D.A. Terence Hallinan; and Mary Rathbun famous for her pot-laced brownies.

The 25th anniversary celebration wasn’t helpful about what’s happening right now in the world of cannabis, though there were some references to the booming black market. Nor was it especially helpful about what will happen, though NORML usually insists that federal legalization is around the corner, only to be proven false. The event was helpful about the run-up to 215: how organizers organized all across the state, knocking on doors and gathering signatures; and the split between the pro-cannabis faction and the pro-hemp faction, though that split was deemphasized.

The speakers, all 38 of them, were survivors of the Drug War. They described Prop 215 as the flower, if we can call it that, “set off a revolution” in the world of cannabis. When I objected to the use of the word “revolution— because it’s abused and over used— to a longtime 79-year-old pot activist she said, “Maybe it wasn’t a revolution, but it was revolutionary.” She added, “After the passage of 215 we didn’t know how to take the movement forward. We trusted the government and we didn’t have our own alternative to their program.”

Prop 215 had many unintended consequences. In fact, it did not end the war on marijuana. Raids, arrests, prosecutions and incarceration went on for years. They still do. In California after 215 there was no coherent state-wide policy for legal, medical marijuana. Instead, it was left to every county and municipality to develop its own rules and regulations. Oakland opened its doors to cannabis, but the Central Valley did not, for the most part. The whole state was a crazy patch word of conflicting policies that could be described as feudalistic

Another unintended consequence was the creation of the pot dispensary which is nowhere mentioned in Prop 215. Before 215 there was Peron’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club which helped men and women, too, with HIV/AIDS, but there were no dispensaries. In the absence of clear guidelines, the cannabis marketplace turned into a wild west with legal and illegal businesses. In rural areas, many cultivators continued their outlaw ways, while a minority obtained licenses and adhered to new rules put in place.

Speaker after speaker explained that in the early and mid-1990s, it looked bleak for marijuana activists and the marijuana cause. The DEA refused to reschedule cannabis and insisted it had no medical value whatsoever. Also, the federal government shut down its own Compassionate Access Program which allowed patients with glaucoma to have legal access to cannabis. Brownie Mary was arrested and prosecuted for making her famous edibles and the San Francisco police raided Peron’s Buyers Club in the midst of the campaign.

But then the picture changed decisively thanks to Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, who had learned her chops from the civil rights movement, and also thanks to big donations from George Soros and George Zimmer of the Men’s Warehouse fame. Garry Trueau’s Doonsebury pro-cannabis cartoons helped immensely.

“We all made history,” Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, said. Valerie Corral, the founder of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, described history “as a moveable feast” and explained that the efforts of many activists were unacknowledged. Tom Amminao, a former SF supervisor and state assembly member, told the audience, “we are standing on the shoulders of many people,” and “we are connected to other movements.” He called out gay rights and immigration reform. Jim Gonzales, who co-managed the 215 campaign, reminded listeners that the cannabis laws were used to incarcerate Black and brown people. That pattern continues.

During a break in the program I talked with a protege of Dennis Peron who grows heaps of marijuana in northern California and who does his best to sell his crop. I’ll call him MM. It’s not easy these days to find buyers for marijuana. “There’s a glut on the market,” MM told me. “Those who are buying, buy sight unseen and unsmoked. All they want to know is whether it was grown indoors or outdoors, in direct sunlight or in a greenhouse. That’s crazy.”

MM added that there was very little affordable medical marijuana. Patients have been the big losers. “What we have now are big industrial operations,” he said. “They are not environmentally sustainable.” I also talked to Aaron Keefer (that’s his real name) who cultivates craft cannabis, which is certified organic, at Sonoma Hills Farm. “With 215 we had a sea change,” he said. “People who were ill, benefitted and it also helped people overcome their fear of marijuana. Prop 215 was about compassion.”

Keefer added that Prop 64, which legalized adult or recreational use in 2016, was “a way to funnel money to the government.” No agricultural product is taxed more heavily than cannabis. Indeed, cannabis is overregulated and over taxed which has led to an expanded black market. In the future, Keefer thinks that companies like Coca Cola will get into the cannabis industry. “What will save small growers and farms like Sonoma Hill will be direct sales. “The spirit of 215 didn’t reach 64,” Keefer said. “But when 215 passed it felt like a ‘get out of jail free” card. There was indeed, cause for rejoicing. Now there needs to be a revolution in the cannabis revolution that brought about 215 and 64 in California and the legal marijuana industry, from Oregon and Washington to Massachusetts and Maine.

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