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A Brief History Medical Marijuana In California

biodynamic cannabis plant in the ground.

When people talk about medical cannabis in the U.S., most everyone thinks of the state laws enacted in the last three decades, beginning with California’s Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215) in 1996. But medical use of cannabis in the U.S. dates back to the 1840s, when cannabis oil was widely available as an over-the-counter medication for everything from snakebites to excessive menstrual bleeding.

A series of federal laws beginning in the 1930s removed cannabis from the shelves of local pharmacies and began to apply a stigma to its use, just as libertine America began to discover the recreational pleasures of it. Puritanical lawmakers nationwide, helped by sensational media coverage of marijuana’s ill effects, propelled cannabis into the realm of illicit substances. And by 1970, the Controlled Substances had enshrined marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside the likes of heroin, mescaline, and MDMA, making its medical use illegal. (Cocaine, meanwhile, remains a Schedule 2 drug with some medical applications to this day.)

Dennis Peron and Medical Cannabis

The AIDS crisis began to change the minds of elected officials, at least on the West Coast, by the early 1990s. San Francisco activist and medical cannabis advocate Dennis Peron had sween his own partner, Jonathan West, succumb to AIDS in 1990, and he’d been selling cannabis to friends and AIDS patients out of storefronts in the Castro neighborhood for a while. In 1991, Peron was instrumental in getting a local ordinance passed, Proposition P, allowing for medical cannabis use in the city of San Francisco — and that led directly to the passage of the statewide Prop. 215 five years later.

Dennis peron giving a speech about medical marijuana.
Dennis Peron was thee author of Prop. 215, which legalized medical cannabis in California.

Peron co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club in 1991, becoming the first semi-legal cannabis dispensary in the country, and paving the way for the medical cannabis movement to take hold across California, and ultimately 33 states in the U.S. It was modeled after the AIDS Drugs Buyers Club — which was not unlike the Dallas Buyers Club depicted in a 2013 film — in which gay men in the Castro banded together to get and distribute unapproved AIDS drugs to help save, or lengthen, the lives of their friends and neighbors.

Related: Jahlibyrd Founder Chris Anderson Talks About his Love of Outdoor Growing

The passage to legalization of medical cannabis was far from a smooth process, and despite San Francisco’s liberal reputation, it has always been home to less-than-liberal police and some conservative political leaders as well. Peron’s storefronts were raided twice — once in 1978 and once in 1990 — and he was constantly under threat of arrest as medical cannabis remained illegal at the state and federal levels.

During one raid, as Way of Leaf recounts, Peron was “shot by a police officer who later admitted that he wished he killed Peron because there would be ‘one less faggot in San Francisco.'”

Peron teamed up with the infamous Brownie Mary (whom we’ll be covering on this blog next week) to distribute marijuana edibles to people in need of pain and nausea relief. And the pair opened Brownie Mary’s Cannabis Café in Peron’s basement in 1993 as a publicity stunt for local TV networks — and a way to call attention to the cause.

Brownie Mary holding cannabis brownies.
Brownie Mary with a few of her famous brownies.

More Cities Adapt Medical Cannabis

The Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Collective followed in 1995, and the city of Oakland helped the collective along by establishing growing and possession guidelines and declared the OCBC an agent of the city.

By the mid-1990s, that attention had been found, and the campaign to pass Prop. 215 was bolstered by billionaire donors like Bill Zimmer and George Soros. It passed in November 1996 with 56.6 percent of California voters approving it.

SPARC was an early trailblazer in San Francisco, having been founded by J. Erich Pearson in 1998 as the San Francisco Patient And Resource Center. And the company opened its first retail dispensary on Mission Street in San Francisco’s SoMa district in 2010. 

Related: Shop Edibles

The patchwork of state laws — some of which now allow for recreational cannabis sales and possession, some of which only allow medical use, and some of which still outlaw cannabis altogether — continues to create confusion to this day, and the Department of Justice has yet to intervene. Also, the Supreme Court has yet to take a case that would settle the question of whether federal drug laws trump those of the states — though they tacitly let California’s law stand in 2009 when it refused to take a case brought by the city of San Diego that was arguing against having to issue medical cannabis cards.

In 2014, we had the closest thing to federal intervention on the cannabis issue with the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, which once and for all prohibited the Justice Department from spending federal funds to interfere with state marijuana laws.

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