Along the greater timeline of historical marijuana-related events, the passage of California’s Proposition 215 has got to rank up there among the most coveted political achievements of all time. In addition to being a landmark accomplishment for American marijuana activists, it also signaled to the rest of the world that the healing potential of cannabis was something to be embraced, rather than stigmatized.
| “California’s Proposition 215 has got to rank up there among the most coveted marijuana-related political achievements of all time…”
In this article, we discuss the origins of Proposition 215, how it almost didn’t make it to ballot, and how the law has since galvanized an unprecedented level of marijuana legalization across not only the United States, but also the global population.
Proposition 215: Origins, History, and Key Players
For the uninformed, California Proposition 215 is of course the first legislation in the U.S. that allowed for the legal medicinal use of marijuana. It passed by a vote of 55.8% back in 1996, and allowed California patients to legally grow and use cannabis under the recommendation of a licensed physician.
KEY LANGUAGE OF CALIFORNIA’S PROPOSITION 215 (1996)
- Exempted qualified patients and their designated caregivers from criminal penalty relating to the use, possession, or cultivation of marijuana
- Exempted physicians from criminal punishment and declared that they would not be “denied any right or privilege” for recommending the use of marijuana
- Stated that measures would be taken to ensure the responsible use of marijuana, and that the Proposition would not “endanger others” or “condone the diversion of marijuana”
There had indeed been efforts to legalize marijuana in California prior to 1996, with initiatives for the legal use of cannabis dating as far back as 1972’s Proposition 19. However, all of these early efforts failed to make it to a statewide vote.
| “The passing of Prop 216 in 1996 exempted California patients from criminal penalty relating to the use, possession, or cultivation of marijuana…”
Then, in the early 1990’s, a group of hardcore marijuana activists from the San Francisco Bay Area formed a not-for-profit advocacy group called Californians for Compassionate Use, and decided to take the legalization fight directly to the people. By late 1995, they had gathered up the 400,000 signatures needed to qualify the Proposition for the November 1996 ballot.
Some of the key figures involved with writing up the initial Proposition – and advocating for its inclusion on the ’96 ballot – included iconic cannabis activist Dennis Peron, author Chris Conrad, Scott Tracy Imler, “Brownie” Mary Jane Rathbun, and renowned psychiatrist Dr. Tod H. Mikuriya.
| “San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan famously supported Proposition 215 so that he ‘didn’t have to send cancer patients to jail for using weed’.”
Several high-profile politicians were also involved in the early advocacy process, including California Assemblyman John Vasconcellos and San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who famously proclaimed he wanted to see Proposition 215 pass so he didn’t have to “send cancer patients to jail for using weed.”
On November 5, 1996, the Proposition was elected into law by California voters at a passing rate of 55.6% to 44.4%.
Proposition 215: The Early Days
To be sure, the early days of Proposition 215 were nothing like the expansive MMJ programs and 1,000+ dispensaries that California enjoys today. In fact, the only operation where “qualified” patients could actually buy marijuana in a retail setting was Peron’s San Francisco Cannabis Buyer’s Club, which appealed more as a cultural hub and hangout than it did an actual organized medical dispensary.
| “The early days of Proposition 215 were nothing like the expansive MMJ programs and 1,000+ dispensaries that California enjoys today.”
Also, passing of the Proposition sparked an almost immediate conflict with U.S. law, as all forms of cannabis were still highly illegal in the eyes of the federal government. In fact, a United States anti-cannabis Task Force – as well as California’s Attorney General and Medical Board – openly set out to “pursue” any licensed doctor who recommended medical marijuana to patients. All in all, over a dozen licensed California physicians were forced to take legal action in the late ’90’s in order to keep their medical licenses.
DID YOU KNOW: Over a dozen California physicians were forced to take legal action after the passing of Prop 215 in order to keep their medical licenses?
Moreover, the DEA and other branches of the federal government executed raids in the years following the passage of Proposition 215, including a police raid on Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyer’s Club, which was ordered by then-California Attorney General Dan Lungren.
Surprisingly, however, there were also key moments that validated California’s authority to legalize medical marijuana under their own state law.
One of these key moments, an iconic court case known as ‘City of Garden Grove vs. Superior Court,’ established that the Garden Grove Police Department had to return confiscated marijuana from a prosecuted individual, citing that “[just] because the [possession of marijuana] is a federal offense, [doesn’t mean that] the state has [the power] to punish it as such.”
Final Thoughts on California’s Proposition 215
All in all, given the ongoing expanse of cannabis use and the current legality that exists across North America (31 U.S. states plus the entire country of Canada now allow for the legal use of marijuana), it’s hard to believe the passing of Proposition 216 is just a hair over 20 years old.
Dennis Peron is often cited as calling 1996 the year that “the stars aligned for medical marijuana,” and indeed, it is certainly true that we would be nowhere near where we are today (in terms of legalization) if it wasn’t for the efforts of those early ’90’s Bay Area activists.
That said, we still have a long way to go in order to achieve full nationwide legalization, and it will no doubt take more hardcore activism and dedication – much like the kind that Peron was responsible for back in 1991 – in order for our long-term goals to come to fruition.