By Diane Beeson

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Rossmoor News

Evil weed, sacred herb or medical miracle? These are only some of the perspectives twenty-four Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Group members examined during their visit to the current Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) exhibit called Altered State: Marijuana in California. The trip was organized by the club’s Program Chair, Anita Mataraso, who recruited Harborside Health Center’s Oakland Community Engagement Coordinator, Kelly Quirke, to provide bus transportation for the trip and to regale passengers with fascinating information on development of medicinal uses of the plant.

The exhibit, open through September 25, 2016, is intended to encourage conversations and deeper understandings of a topic that is having increasing impact on our communities and our state. It does not promote any particular viewpoint related to marijuana use, but is timely because the question of legalization is one expected to appear on the state ballot in November. As Rossmoor resident, Jerome Neuman, noted,” The exhibit was quite wonderful! And it was neutral; they weren’t selling it, but rather simply getting you thinking about so many issues. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stimulating museum exhibit!”

The history of marijuana use is a major focus of the exhibit, covering changing images of typical users, particularly in California over the course of the 20th century; the changing political context and legal status; scientific research especially on medical uses; economic implications; and perspectives on the plant’s relationship to creativity and spirituality. There is also a section on “Youth and Weed.” Multimedia exhibits include a variety of opportunities for visitors to share their personal experiences and voice their opinions on various aspects of the topic.

Museum goers learn that hemp and medical cannabis are the same species that has been bred for different purposes. One strain, cannabis Sativa, was used in India for thousands of years before it was brought to the Caribbean by indentured servants in the 1800s and from there to North America. Another strain, Indica, came directly from Afganistan in the 1970s. Both contain active compounds known as cannabinoids that are responsible for marijuana’s effects on the body. The most well studied of which are THC and CBD.

Many were surprised to learn that marijuana was sold in drugstores and could be ordered by mail here until California became the first state to outlaw marijuana in 1913, fourteen years before the Federal Marijuana Tax Act outlawed it at the Federal level. Criminalization, the exhibit indicates, historically has been intimately linked with racism. Mexican Americans, African Americans and even those of Arab heritage were identified with its proliferation from before the turn of the 20th century, and often disproportionately persecuted and prosecuted for possessing it. Pie charts and maps make it clear that even today, despite comparable usage across ethnic groups, and reduced penalties, African Americans in California are many times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana, than those of other ethnicities.

In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan expressed the belief that “Marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, it is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.” By 1994, former Domestic Affairs advisor for President Nixon, John Erlichman, admitted, “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities …Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” This admission may have helped California pass a statewide medical marijuana law in 1996, but much of the current greater acceptance of medicinal marijuana is attributed to AIDS activists who used it to help them tolerate the harsh side effects of treatment medications and promoted passage of the 1996 bill.

The exhibit makes clear that times have changed since the emphasis was on the “insanity, disgrace, and horror marijuana can bring to its victim.” Today, California treats marijuana like a parking ticket. Those caught with small amounts of marijuana get a fine of less than $100. In Oakland, the exhibit informs viewers, local law tells police to leave cannabis users alone, but adds, “everywhere in the US users are treated differently by law enforcement depending on who they are and what they look like.” Four states, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have legalized marijuana possession; 15 more have decriminalized it, and 19 permit medical use.

While California is predicted to be next on the list of states legalizing recreational cannabis use, the exhibit makes it clear that such a change would require myriad additional decisions regarding regulation of packaging; labeling; advertising and marketing standards; taxation; and allowable modes of distribution. Even without legalization of recreational use, CA produces and sells more marijuana than any other state in the US. and Harborside Dispensary is Oakland’s largest taxpayer after the Port of Oakland.

The plant is becoming more widely accepted as a medical treatment with particular success in reducing pain, controlling nausea and aiding sleep. The exhibit informs us that “There are no studies yet that show marijuana can treat cancer in humans. A few early studies show that marijuana might prevent tumor growth in rat or cells in a lab, but much more research is needed.” Federal law has seriously impeded such research, but legal trends suggest this may soon change.

Clearly, as the exhibit shows, public images of marijuana users have changed dramatically over the course of the last century. Depending on the era, Californians have pictured marijuana users as dangerous criminals, avant-garde artists or enlightened free thinkers. Judging from the busload of Rossmoor residents attending the exhibit, the dominant image in the near future, whether of medical or recreational users, could be the kindly respectable grandparent.