Long before the Eagles first welcomed us to the Hotel California, the Golden State has been associated with marijuana use, culture and abuse. Yeah!
Perhaps it started with the lassez faire environment of Hollywood and the creative types who inhabit the place. Perhaps it started even earlier, in the Gold Rush and land rush and frontier days of its first European settlement.
Some say that Mexican immigrants brought the drug along with them when they migrated to California in droves in the 1910s. Or maybe it was the Mormons from Salt Lake City who were heading down Mexico way for the same purpose, who shared a bit of their purchases as they wound their way back home.
However it began, the push to marginalize marijuana users began not long after the drug began achieving popularity. In fact, California became the first state in the union to pass a law prohibiting the possession or use of marijuana – as far back as 1913.
That law did little to stop the sale and use of marijuana in California, though. Through generations, the struggle continued.
Remember “Reefer Madness,” the scared-straight film about doped up kids destroying the fabric of our society? The film was the brainchild of Lammont DuPont and media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and it struck fear into the hearts of many. On the flip side of the debate in the 1930s were the jazz musicians, artists and fans who built an entire subculture around the drug.
That all segued pretty seamlessly into the 1960s and the Summer of Love, when suburban kids from all around the country converged on San Francisco’s Height and Ashbury streets to tune in, turn on and drop out. That’s the drug culture that many think of to this day when they think of recreational marijuana users. During the 1980s and early 90s, California’s war on drugs – including marijuana – reached a boiling point, with “three strikes” rules and mandatory minimum sentences that packed California’s jails and prisons with thousands of petty drug offenders, alongside more dangerous and serious criminals.
By 1996, the first time that California voters decided to legalize and regulate the sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the lines for and against the drug and drug culture had not only been drawn, they’d been drawn in thick, black, indelible marker, which then was capped with a 20-foot concertina-wire fence, built next to a moat full of hungry crocodiles.
Opponents of the Compassionate Use Act sounded like the parents in Reefer Madness all over again. Legalizing medical marijuana would essentially be making it legal for any use. Children would be smoking it on their way to nursery school. The social fabric of the state would unravel again.
Proponents of the act argued that adults should have the right to use the drug to treat a number of common illnesses – to alleviate the symptoms of those suffering from cancer or anorexia, from AIDS, glaucoma, arthritis, migraines, chronic pain or any other illness that might be treated with the drug.
It’s that last part that has brought at least some of critics’ fears to reality – the types and descriptions of ailments for which Californians have been able to secure prescriptions for marijuana are as varied as the people who hold them. In that sense, the Compassionate Care Act really did “drive a truck through” the state’s drug enforcement laws.
On the other hand, only a few hundred thousand Californians have obtained prescriptions for marijuana. There has been no epidemic of children smoking it on the way to day care. The social fabric seems to be, more or less, intact. At the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown is being forced by budget constraints and basic human dignity to release incarcerated persons in droves. Even conservative Republican lawmakers at the state and local level are pushing for sentencing reform – urging communities to deal with the personal use of most drugs as a public and mental health concern, rather than a matter of public safety.
And voters’ decisions in other states to decriminalize marijuana for even recreational use seems to make quaint California’s medical marijuana law and its nominal restrictions. One wonders where the next line in the sand will have to be drawn.