How the Nation's Oldest Medical Marijuana Law Could Be Affected by Proposition 64

Grace Medical Marijuana Pharmacy is at Pico Boulevard and Centinela Avenue, a stone's throw from the 10 freeway.EXPAND
Grace Medical Marijuana Pharmacy is at Pico Boulevard and Centinela Avenue, a stone's throw from the 10 freeway.
David Futch

If Proposition 64 passes this November, California will bid adieu to the nation’s oldest medical marijuana law. Enacted in 1996, Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act, created looser restrictions on cannabis use across the state. 

Chris Conrad is a cannabis authority who has testified as an expert witness in more than 325 marijuana-related cases. He is also one of the authors of Proposition 215. Creating a pathway toward legalization by way of medical use, however, was never his intention, he says. He has long advocated for total legalization. His support of Proposition 215, he says, was a means of compromising in order to move incrementally forward. “We came to the conclusion that if we could unify the movement behind it, then we could springboard into full legalization,” Conrad says.

From 1989 to 1994, Conrad and his wife, Mikki Norris, created a movement called the Hemp Initiative. With a group of volunteers known as “the Hempsters,” they gathered signatures in an attempt to get a recreational-use measure on the ballot. Five years of their efforts, however, fell relatively flat. Conrad and Norris were able to garner only half of the signatures they needed and did not obtain any funding. “It was a great organizational and educational tool, but we were not close to getting on the ballot,” says Conrad.

In the spring of 1995, somewhat defeated, Conrad and Norris found a new possible gateway to legalization efforts when they attended a statewide cannabis conference in Santa Cruz and met up with San Fransisco–based activist Dennis Peron, who had made a name for himself in the Bay Area by operating a chain of underground collectives that dispensed cannabis to AIDS patients. Peron and his fellow activists convinced Conrad and his team that medical-use laws would be much more easily passed than full-on recreational use. 

One of Conrad’s allies, Jack Herer (of notable sativa strain fame), came out in staunch opposition to this approach. “Herer verbally lambasted us and anyone else who took the ‘steps to legalization’ approach,”  Conrad says. “He said that if we did not legalize everything at once, we would create a splinter element of the movement vested in medicalization who would ultimately come out to oppose full legalization, and that complacency would start to pull us down.”

Still, confident that medical legalization could act as a means of potential recreational use, Conrad continued to compromise on his initial ideals by working with Peron and his partners to create legislation that would allow the widest possible access to cannabis within the medical-use framework. Ultimately, he was satisfied with the broad definition of medical use as defined by the law. “When I read Proposition 215, I was very impressed with the phrase ‘or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.’ That protects many patients who would not have otherwise been eligible.”

After some minor friction among the activists writing Proposition 215 and a harrowing moment in the effort when top funders nearly pulled out upon discovering a large portion of the campaign’s petition signatures were unusable, the CUA was successful. “Mostly, the opposition just thought it was kind of a joke and we would never win, so they just smirked, fell back onto Reefer Madness and were shocked when Proposition 215 passed,” says Conrad.

What followed would prove to be a kind of pilot program for ending cannabis prohibition nationwide. From its onset, some marijuana business insiders intended to use medical marijuana laws as a way of expanding recreational use. One of the bill’s authors, Richard Lee, went on to found Oakland’s noted Oaksterdam University, an educational institute dedicated to teaching skills related to the business and science of cannabis.

The hazy legal status of cannabis helped to increase availability of the plant to state residents. In Barcott’s opinion, it also helped to lay the framework for what he believes will be a natural transition to full legalization. “People are so comfortable with it, so familiar with it. They know how to grow it,”  says Bruce Barcott, Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.  He says California’s sophisticated understanding of marijuana has helped contribute to the nature of Proposition 64’s verbiage, making it “one of the most well-thought-out, well-considered measures ever put before voters.”


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