California’s Proposition 215 – The ‘Compassionate Use Act’ of 1996 was the compilation of many efforts to provide medical cannabis legally to those in greatest need. It did not come easy, but it started with the passion of the early visionaries such as Dennis Peron, ‘Brownie’ Mary Jane Rathbun and Dr. Tod Mikuriya to name a few. They knew without fail that the benefits from the use of cannabis far outweighed any potential negative effects of the medicine. They saw firsthand how cannabis was benefitting those who were suffering from Cancer, AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, and many other debilitating and deadly diseases. They also saw firsthand the negative effects of many prescribed medications that were purported to do what cannabis has done for centuries. For those of us who benefit from cannabis in any way, we owe a debt of gratitude to all of those who persisted in making sure we have safe and full access to this plant medicine.
It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Prop 215 was passed. When I think back to my life leading up to that day, I was living in the bay area and seeing as much live music as I could. At one of these events maybe in 1995, I signed onto help in the effort of seeing that Prop 215 passed. While my role was limited to participating in a few rallies, I marveled at the grassroots effort that unfolded leading up to that election. About every month, I would receive a phone call on the good old fashioned ‘phone tree’ that people would be gathering for peaceful rallies on the steps of the capital or local government building. It was amazing to see the amount of energy that went into the cannabis community development in the face of insurmountable odds. Without modern technology to help drive that cause, it was all the people in the trenches making hundreds of calls, showing up for peaceful rallies and letting their voices be heard that truly paved the way for the cannabis industry as we know it today.
On November 5, 1996, the fruits of all that hard labor paid off. That moment ushered in a new era of plant-based medicine. As we rolled into 1997, it felt like a blissful honeymoon. With a doctor’s recommendation, you would be legally entitled under state law to possess up to 8 oz. of dried cannabis and/or were allowed to have 6 mature plants on your property. Of course, this formula was just a starting point and would continue to be refined throughout the next decade and more, but those first few guidelines provided patients the ability to grow their own medicine. At that time, I was living at my best friend’s mom’s house. Unfortunately, she had been debilitated by the effects of Multiple Sclerosis and was bedridden. Cannabis was the only medicine that relieved her of all her pain as well as made her feel happy. Her doctor who knew full well the life that awaited her, put his medical license on the line and made a recommendation for her to have access to cannabis. This is what is meant by ‘Compassionate Use’.
During those last few years of the 20th century, the first medical dispensaries in California were opening legally to help provide cannabis to those who didn’t have the ability to grow it themselves. I remember my first visit to Dennis Peron’s SF Cannabis Buyer’s Club on Market Street. I was there as the caregiver for my friend’s mom. It was a surreal experience being able to walk in, present the doctor’s recommendation and go upstairs to make a purchase. Of course, in the beginning the selections were minimal, but I just remember feeling exhilarated that this was now a possibility. Well, that feeling was short-lived as a few months later, law enforcement officials raided the dispensary and shut it down. This would become a vicious cycle for those early participants under Prop 215, but the ‘Green Rush’ could not be held back.
As the cannabis cooperatives or collectives grew, they became the seeds that would be sown for the national medical cannabis movement. After Prop 215 passed, each year more states followed suit and passed some form of medical cannabis legalization whether through ballot measure, state legislation or decriminalization. Even the federal government recognized the health benefits of cannabis in 2001, when the US Department of Health and Human Services applied for U.S. Patent No. 6,630,507. The patent essentially states that ‘Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties as well as having particular application as neuroprotectants.’ Cannabinoids can help with issues related to oxidative stress, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, HIV and dementia to name a few. This patent was officially approved in October of 2003.
Slowly but surely, research is being done and new facts about cannabis’ effect on the Endocannabinoid system and overall body are being discovered every day. The list of ailments that cannabis has shown to have positive effects on include Alzheimer’s, arthritis, glaucoma, cancer, obesity, anorexia, emesis, pain management, multiple sclerosis, inflammation, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, insomnia to name just a few. There can be no question that medical cannabis is having a profoundly positive effect for those who need it.
Looking back on the last 25 years, I am left with a sense of wonderment at what has been accomplished by the community-driven, grassroots effort. While it’s easy to quantify and criticize the multi-billion dollar medical/recreational cannabis industry that has emerged, I prefer to look at it from the eyes of my parents and their friends who all now regularly talk about cannabis in their lives and how it is helping them with their ailments. My twenty-something self never would have believed that that would be possible.
While the journey of cannabis in the human race has had a much longer history than the 25 years of Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act set in motion a movement that has brought us to the precipice of realizing the greatest potential of medical cannabis in our lives. The overall acceptance for medical cannabis in the United States is at an all-time ‘high’. From a pole taken by the Pew Research Center in 2021, 91% of US adults were in favor of some form of legalization. The people have spoken, and now it is time for the federal government to follow the will of the people.