November 5th 1996 will forever be remembered as a landmark day in cannabis history. It was the day that the state of California passed Proposition 215, legalising cannabis for medical use and effectively opening the floodgates for cannabis use across America. While the after-effects took place as a series of slow drips rather than an actual flood, it’s hard to imagine the impact this result had at the time unless you were there – but it’s safe to say it was a monumental day, and one which cued great celebration. The effect of Prop 215’s victory at the ballot box can’t be overstated.
A Brief History of Proposition 215
The bill was brought to being by Dennis Peron, and activist and businessman who had been a leader for the movement to legalise cannabis during the 1990s. Peron had served in the Vietnam War, and upon returning to the United States, moved to California where he would sell cannabis from storefronts in the Castro District. Peron would advocate heavily for medical cannabis after seeing how patients with AIDS benefitted from its use, and was inspired to work on the bill in memory of his late partner, Jonathan West, who had used marijuana to treat the symptoms of AIDS. As far back as 1991, Peron arranged the passage of Proposition P, which had no legal backing, but served to highlight the city of San Francisco’s support for medical marijuana. Later that same year, Peron and John Entwistle Jr co-founded California’s first public marijuana dispensary, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. California’s legislature would go on to approve other medical marijuana bills, but these were ultimately vetoed by then-Governor Pete Wilson.
In 1996, Peron and others would co-author Proposition 215, which would create the world’s first legal medical marijuana system if it passed the vote, working alongside Dr Tod Mikuriya, who had given talks around the world since the 1980s to spread information and gain support for the use of marijuana in medicine.
Opposition and Support for Prop 215
Despite strong public support, the bill faced stiff opposition from power, with three former presidents, law enforcement, and drug prevention groups speaking out against Prop 215. Not only that, but the Attorney General of California at the time, Dan Lungren, would raid Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club, closing it down and arresting Peron in the process. The bill had gained significant traction, however, and had notable allies in support, including prominent oncologists and politicians including San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who wrote that he would support Prop 215 as he “didn’t want to send cancer patients to jail for using marijuana.”
How Prop 215 Passed
Peron would go on to describe 1996 as the year when “The stars aligned for medical marijuana,” and looking back, it certainly seems as though they did. It took a series of factors to tip the scales in favour of Prop 215, and with a Democrat incumbent during a presidential election year, California being a heavily
Democrat-leaning state long-known for its liberalism, and recent studies of the time showing marijuana provided relief for chemotherapy patients, more people’s minds had begun to open to the potential medical benefits of marijuana. A well-publicised police raid on Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club saw the arrest of many people who were seeking cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of illness backfired on the federal opposition, garnering support for those cannabis users instead, and it all came together at the perfect moment for the bill. When the ballots were counted, Proposition 215 would succeed by procuring 55.58% of the people’s votes.
What the Bill Would Mean
Prop 215 would allow those who wanted to use marijuana for medical purposes to obtain a recommendation for legal use from a licensed doctor or medical practitioner, and at the same time it would exempt those who possessed or cultivated marijuana for medical purposes from the State’s criminal laws which would otherwise prohibit the possession or cultivation of marijuana. In other words, not only could you get prescription for medical weed, but you could keep or grow your own buds free from the fear of penalties or jail time. It did not extend to recreational use, and as such was subtitled the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Furthermore, there was a clause included in the bill which “Declares that measure not be construed to supersede prohibitions of conduct endangering others or to condone diversion of marijuana for non-medical purposes.” So, criminal charges would still be effective in instances of possession or cultivation without the approval of a licensed medical practitioner.
What the Bill Means Today
California Proposition 215 remains one of the most definitive moments in cannabis culture, representing the pioneer movement which would serve as a template for not just other states, but would also be cited as hugely influential in other countries around the world in the continuing fight to make medical marijuana legal. It would be 2012 before Washington and Colorado would pass similar initiatives, and once that ball started rolling, the momentum was unstoppable. Today, 36 of 50 U.S. states, and the District of Columbia, have all legalised weed for medical use. Canada legalised weed entirely in 2018, and almost every country in Latin America has legalised medical cannabis.
Research is ongoing into the benefits of medicinal use, and there now exists a multi-billion dollar medical cannabis industry which spans worldwide. Jobs and scientific research are booming in the cannabis industry, and the number of people benefiting from the medicinal advantages of cannabis continues to grow exponentially. Most of this is thanks to that monumental bill passed in 1996. Thank you, Proposition 215, and thank you, California.