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Failed Fantasies of Prohibition

Despite its apparent omnipotence, the fabric of the twentieth-century global cannabis ban contained many holes since its inception. As soon as a hole was closed, new ones opened. This difficulty was due, to a large extent, to the long historical relationship that human beings had with the cannabis plant. Many societies had incorporated cannabis as a medium for fiber, medicine, sacred ceremonies and recreation for 1000 years. This history could not easily be erased by new international governmental organisations.


For example, many countries were reluctant to ban medical use. Many of the first laws banning or restricting cannabis, in the 1920s and 1930s, still allowed medical use. It was only in 1952, when the World Health Organization, influenced by the USA, proclaimed that medical cannabis is obsolete, that countries began to include medical cannabis in their bans. In addition to the reluctance to ban medical cannabis, countries outside the US and Europe were more reluctant to follow the same path of complete abolition. Pressure from India has made the UN define hemp as the flowering tops of the plant so that they can continue to allow the consumption of bhang, a drink made from spiced milk enriched with hemp leaves and seeds. In fact, many nations outside of Europe and America waited much longer to restrict the production and use of cannabis because of its long history. India finally banned hemp, except for bhang, in 1985. Nepal and Afghanistan in 1973, South Korea in 1976 and Lebanon in 1992. Many of these countries were along the so-called “Hippie Trail”, which attracted many of the subcultures of the 1960s, from North America and Western Europe. These young hippies were chasing a fantasy of the “East,” which he imagined freer, more spiritual, and filled with mind-changing substances and experiences.


Even when international pressure collapsed the path of hippies, new concerns were raised about the international ban order. One of these was the revision of the ban on cannabis, decriminalizing personal use. That way, users would be safe from criminal prosecution, but selling and marketing would still be a serious offense. The Netherlands was the first of the Western nations to disagree with the status quo of the US-led ban, establishing a policy of decriminalization. First, they established a policy of not arresting people for possession or sale of small quantities. They then classified cannabis as a less dangerous drug, with fewer criminal penalties in 1976, which allowed the opening of “coffee shops”. These coffee shops gave cannabis the appearance of legality, although the cultivation and large-scale purchase and sale was and still is illegal. This laid the basis for a wave of decriminalisation programmes, in the early 2000s, around the world, from Portugal to Chile. In these countries, the possession and cultivation of small quantities of cannabis for personal use is no longer a crime.


Another method of redefining the ban was the reintroduction of medical cannabis. Although medical cannabis had never died in many countries, the first legal status for the official resumption of medical use was, ironically, in the United States, when the state of California passed the Compassionate Use Act or Proposition 215 in 1996. The fight for medical cannabis in this legislation was inextricably linked to the LGBTQ community. Members of this community had developed silently and provided cannabis to AIDS patients well before 1996. Due to the fact that many people in the U.S. believe that HIV is a “homosexual disease,” there has been little medical funding and research. Accordingly, there were no effective drugs for the treatment of this disease during the 1980s and early 90s. Many AIDS sufferers thus turned to cannabis to soothe their symptoms, particularly for appetite stimulation during the infamous “wasting syndrome”. Many of the activists who promoted Proposition 215 came from this community. In San Francisco, Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathburn wrote and collected signatures to pass Proposition P, in 1991: a law that declares San Francisco’s support for medical cannabis, even though they could not make it legal. Peron, a Vietnam veteran who was attracted to San Francisco by his devotion to anti-war activism and gay rights, became an advocate for cannabis for many years. Peron devoted himself to medical cannabis in 1990, in memory of his partner who died of AIDS-related complications. Rathburn, otherwise known as “Brownie” Mary, was a grandmother who distributed cannabis brownies to AIDS sufferers at San Francisco General Hospital for 10 years. After passing the proposal, Dennis and Mary opened the San Francisco Buyers Club to supply cannabis to those in medical need. Although technically it was illegal, because of proposition P the San Francisco turned a blind eye.


The San Francisco Buyers Club of Dennis and Mary, became the center for supporters of medical cannabis throughout the state. This dedicated team helped design and promote two consecutive bills that would allow the legal use of cannabis, with the doctor’s approval. The bills passed through the California Senate, but Governor Pete Wilson vetoed both. The group then decided to try, for an initiative that would be voted directly by the Californians. California is quite unique among American states in that it allows some laws to be passed directly by California residents. After drafting the bill, the group collected more than 400,000 signatures to put it to a vote and passed it with a strong 55.6% of the vote.


The direct effect of Proposition 215 was the safety of patients who used cannabis to alleviate their symptoms. However, the law did not propose a method of regulation or procurement. The bill allowed patients and their caregivers to possess and grow cannabis and protected doctors from prosecution or punishment for prescribing it. However, law enforcement continued as it was previously. They considered the purchase and sale of cannabis as a crime, not protected by Proposition 215. In some provinces and cities, which had a longer history of freedom against cannabis, local decrees and policies protected growers and even allowed the opening of clubs/clubs and dispensaries. But in most areas, patients still had to resort to the black market for their medicine and always run the risk of being treated as traders if they cultivated or possessed larger quantities. Proposition 215’s groundbreaking actions, however, began to bring the American people into contact with the benefits of medical cannabis. Today, medical cannabis is legal in 33 of the 50 states. This review, in the United States, has helped to ease the international easing of the cannabis ban and now allows other nations to rethink how they treat the plant. Without the same international pressures, more and more countries have legalized medical cannabis, established decriminalization programs or even completely legalized this ancient plant.



by Tamara Trichome





Sharif Gemie, Brian Ireland, The Hippie Trail: A History. Manchester University Press.


Ed Leuw and Ineke Haen Marshall (eds), Between Prohibition and Legalization: The Dutch Experiment in Drug Policy. New York; Amsterdam: Kugler Publications.


The article was written for the New Yorker, about Proposition 215 and was meant to be published a week before the election, but the article was cut at the last minute, published in O’Shaughnessy’s, a medical newspaper about cannabis printed in Oakland, California. Fred Gardner, “Dennis Peron and the Passage of the Proposition 215”

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