Despite its seeming omnipotence, the web of twentieth century global cannabis prohibition contained many holes from its inception. As soon as one hole was closed, new ones opened up. This difficulty was largely due to the long historical relationship which human beings have had with the cannabis plant. Many societies have incorporated cannabis as a fiber, a medicine, a sacred rite, and a recreation for 1000s of years. This history could not be easily erased by new international governing apparatuses.
For example, many countries were reluctant to ban medical use. Many of the early laws banning or restricting cannabis in the 1920s and 30s, still allowed for its medical use. It was not until 1952, when the US-influenced World Health Organization proclaimed medical cannabis 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 loathe to follow the same route of complete abolition. Pressure from India made the UN define cannabis just as the flowering tops of the plant so that they could continue to allow the drinking of bhang, a beverage made of spiced milk infused with cannabis leaves and seeds. In fact, many nations outside of Europe and the Americas waited much longer to restrict cannabis production and use because of its long, historical background. India finally banned cannabis other than 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 1960s subculture from North America and Western Europe. These young hippies chased a fantasy of the “East” which they imagined as freer, more spiritual, and filled with mind-altering substances and experiences.
Even as international pressure cracked down on the hippie trail, new qualms arose over the international order of prohibition. One of these was a reconceptualization of cannabis prohibition by decriminalizing personal use. In this way, users would be safe from criminal prosecution, but selling and trafficking was still a serious offense. The Netherlands was the first of the western nations to dissent from the US-led prohibition status quo by enacting a policy of decriminalization. First, they made a policy to not arrest people for possessing or selling small quantities. Then they classified cannabis as a less dangerous drug with fewer criminal penalties in 1976, which allowed the opening of cannabis “coffee shops”. These coffee shops gave cannabis the appearance of legality, although cultivating and large-scale buying and selling was, and still is, illegal. This set the stage for a wave of decriminalization programs in the early 2000s across the globe from Portugal to Chile. In these countries, possessing and growing small amounts of cannabis for personal use is no longer a crime.
Another method of reconceptualizing prohibition was the reintroduction of medical cannabis. Although medical cannabis had never died in many countries, the first legal regime to officially reopen 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 which led to this legislation was inseparable from the LGBTQ community. Members of this community had been clandestinely growing and providing cannabis to AIDS patients long before 1996. Due to many people in the US believing HIV was a “gay disease”, there was little medical funding and research. Consequently, there were no effective medicines to treat this illness during the 1980s and early 90s. Many sufferers of AIDS thus turned to cannabis to ease their symptoms, particularly stimulating appetite during the infamous “wasting syndrome.” Many of the activists who pushed for 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 city law which declared San Francisco’s support for medical cannabis even though they could not make it legal. Peron, a Vietnam veteran attracted to San Francisco by its dedication to anti-war activism and gay rights, became a long time advocate of cannabis. Peron dedicated 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 grandmotherly figure who had been passing out pot-infused brownies to AIDS sufferers at San Francisco General Hospital for 10 years. After they passed the proposition, Dennis and Mary opened the San Francisco Buyers Club to provide cannabis to those who demonstrated a medical need for it. Although it was technically illegal, because of Proposition P, San Francisco turned a blind eye to its operations.
Dennis and Mary’s San Francisco Buyers Club became a center for medical cannabis advocates around the state. This dedicated group helped draft and lobby for two consecutive bills which would allow legal use of marijuana with a doctor’s approval. The bills passed the California Senate but Governor Pete Wilson vetoed both. The group then decided to try for an initiative that would be directly voted for by Californians. California is fairly unique amongst the US states in that it allows some laws to be directly voted for by California residents. After writing the bill, the group collected more than 400,000 signatures to get it on the ballot and it passed with a strong 55.6% of the vote.
The immediate result of Proposition 215 was the safety of patients who used cannabis to relieve their symptoms. Yet, the law did not prescribe a method of regulation or procurement. The bill allowed patients and their caregivers to possess and cultivate cannabis, and protected doctors from prosecution or punishment for prescribing it. However, law enforcement continued much as they had before. They viewed the buying and selling of cannabis as a crime that was not protected by the proposition. In certain counties and cities which had longer histories of liberality towards cannabis, local ordinances and policies protected cultivators and even allowed for the opening of buyers clubs and dispensaries. But in most areas of the state, patients still had to resort to the black market for their medicine and always ran the risk of being treated as a seller if they grew or possessed larger amounts. Yet, the pioneering actions of Proposition 215 began to open up the American people to the benefits of medical cannabis. Today medical cannabis is legal in 33 out of 50 states. This re-conceptualization within the United States has contributed to the international softening of cannabis prohibition and now allows other nations to reconsider how they treat the plant in their own country. Without the same international pressure, more and more countries have legalized medical cannabis, enacted programs of decriminalization, or even outright legalized this ancient plant.
by Tamara Trichome
Sharif Gemie, Brian Ireland, The Hippie Trail: A History. Manchester University Press, 2017.
Ed Leuw and Ineke Haen Marshall (eds), Between Prohibition and Legalization: The Dutch Experiment in Drug Policy. New York; Amsterdam: Kugler Publications, 1996.
Article written for the New Yorker about Proposition 215 and meant to be published one week before the election, but the article was cut at the last minute, it was instead published in O’Shaughnessy’s, a medical cannabis related newspaper printed in Oakland, California. Fred Gardner, “Dennis Peron and the Passage of Proposition 215,” (2013) https://www.marijuana.com/news/2014/08/the-cannabis-buyers-club-how-medical-marijuana-began-in-california/