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Marijuana’s Legal Journey in California

California is often associated with relative marijuana-friendliness in terms of laws and the social view of pot use. Being the first state nationwide to legalize the use of medical marijuana back in 1996, and the fifth to vote for its recreational use in the November 2016 election, that view might be valid to an extent. However, the results of this election, which passed Proposition 64 that states the legality of marijuana use in California, were 56% to 44% in favor of legalization, which shows that on the social level, recreational use of marijuana is still viewed negatively by a substantial portion of the Californian society.

California’s journey to marijuana legalization has actually been a quite turbulent one between federal- and state-level hindrances, starting almost a century ago, namely in 1913. To get a more comprehensive image, however, we need to go back exactly a century ago, to 1907. That year, the Poison Act was passed, which made the selling and use of cocaine or opiates, like opium and morphine, illegal without a prescription. Then in 1913, an amendment was made to the prohibition, making the possession of “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations and compounds,” a misdemeanour. That amendment was followed by another one in 1915 which prohibited the sale or possession of “flowering tops and leaves, extracts, tinctures and other narcotic preparations of hemp or loco weed (Cannabis sativa), Indian hemp” without having a medical prescription.

However, the social prejudice towards marijuana was truly sparked in the 1930s, after the influx of a big number of Mexican immigrants following the 1910 Mexican Revolution, and the growing anti-Mexican sentiment. That sentiment was exploited by opponents of marijuana as they started linking cannabis use to Mexicans, who they claimed were bringing the plant across the border along with them. Marijuana was starting to be associated with violence, rage, and lunacy, and the anti-immigrant sentiment was used to propagate that “most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage,” as the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at that time, Harry Anslinger, once said. Anslinger was the one who had drafted the Marihuana Tax act and was running a nationwide campaign against the plant.

Then came the biggest challenge to marijuana users, which is the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. It repealed the Marihuana Tax Act and replace it with a higher restriction on marijuana use, which it listed in Schedule 1 among the drugs that have no valid medicinal value. A year before that act, a report showed that a mere 3% of Californians supported the complete legalization of marijuana, along with 10% who believed it should be legalized yet put under the same scrutiny alcohol is subjected to.

California’s first attempt to try independently from the federal government’s restrictions, to decriminalize cannabis came in 1972 in the form of Proposition 19, which aimed to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of the plant by individuals who are 18 and older. Proposition 19 was defeated in the vote by 33.5% for and 66.5% against. The view at that time could be inferred from an editorial published in The Times that year criticizing the proposition, wondering, “Does the state really want to run the risk of greatly increasing the smoking of marijuana? That, we fear, is what Proposition 19 would do.”

The only legislative district to pass Prop. 19 was that which included San Francisco, represented by George Moscone in the state Senate, who later became city’s mayor. Moscone was leading the pro-marijuana movement in the state, creating a committee that became known by his name. The Moscone Committee, as it became known, put together the first proper study of marijuana prohibition from both the fiscal and the social aspects. What the study came to find was that 90% of marijuana arrest took place over simple possession and were burdening the state with $100 million per year. In response to these findings, Moscone introduced Senate Bill 95 in Sacramento, which was heard and enacted in 1975. The signing of this bill in July 1975 made California the fifth state to abolish jail punishment for individuals charged with possession of marijuana in quantities limited to personal use, making it just subject to a fine with a maximum of $100. Apparently, California has a thing for number 5, given that it was also the 5th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Two decades later, in 1996, Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, was passed by 56% to 44%, starting a new page for medical marijuana users, where their possession of their medicine was no longer a criminal nor civil breach of the law. That proposition was a legal precedence, making California the first state to allow legal access to medical marijuana. The proposition was aimed at providing cannabis for the seriously ill such as patients with cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma and arthritis without keeping them in fear of criminal charges. However, that situation was not approved of by some officials on the federal level, including the Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and DEA Director Thomas Constantine. The group of opponents held a press conference where they publicly threatened to take penal action against the physicians in California who prescribe marijuana to patients in need of it. They were wishing that approach would make Prop. 215 obsolete. However, a couple of months later, prominent Californian physicians along with patients filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court in San Francisco and won a ruling on the grounds of the 1st Amendment, given that they had the right to free speech in a lawful manner, which included being able to recommend to their patients any substance allowed by the law and marijuana fit that criterion. However, despite having the protection of a federal court order, until a recent time many physicians remained in fear of tensions with law enforcement agencies which stopped them from prescribing medical marijuana.

Putting an end to the constant difficulties met by physicians and patients alike who were within their lawful rights to possess medical marijuana at the hands of federal law enforcement agencies such as the DEA, Senate Bill 420 was passed in 2003. The Medical Marijuana Program Act clarified the scope of the medical marijuana law passed in 1996, and which government agencies were responsible for enforcing it. It also introduced a card system that allowed patients to carry on them an ID card to help law enforcement agencies identify verified medical marijuana patients. At that time the social view of marijuana, at least in its medical forms of use, was shifting substantially. A poll made a year after Bill 420, in 2004, showed that 75% of California residents supported the medical marijuana laws that were in place.

After the trend of the legalization of recreational marijuana that started in Colorado has started to gain momentum, moving on to Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, today the residents of California and three more states are able to possess, use, and plant marijuana without the fear of fines or incarcerations. There are certain limitations that will remain in place until California has the legal infrastructure to operate an Amsterdam-style marijuana-friendly state. For example, marijuana shops probably won’t exist until the beginning of 2018, until the red tape of state regulations is gone through. However, areas like Oakland and San Francisco who have a well-established medical marijuana business might be able to get there faster. But the good news is there’s a deadline for the state to start issuing marijuana shop licenses. Until then, black market dealings in pot are forbidden, as well as buying from medical marijuana dispensaries which are still exclusive to patient card holders. The only legal means of acquiring marijuana are planting them on your own property within a limit of six plants per household, or getting it from someone who is planting it but without any monetary exchange being involved, but within the public possession limits of one ounce of bud or 8 grams of concentrate. It is also a bit of a gray situation when it comes to the places where one can use marijuana, which makes it advised to keep it inside private residences for the time being.

Although a few restrictions remain in place to the use of a plant that has been proven time and time again to be perfectly safe, however, the distance cut up until today might have been unimaginable in the past. At the very least, thousands will be safe from the regular detainments that took place on the grounds of marijuana possession. One of the main perks of the November 8 vote is the message it will send out that the use of marijuana is something that is perfectly acceptable for adults, or better yet of benefit to their health.


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