How California Led the Medical Marijuana Revolution

Medical marijuana is becoming seen as increasingly legitimate to treat a host of ailments, but let's not forget that California carried the torch of legalization before many others would.

Research shows that compounds within cannabis can be exceedingly important in helping sufferers of certain conditions improve their well-being and avoid potentially life-threatening symptoms. For example, CBD is a veritable miracle cure for many sufferers of epilepsy as it helps to reduce the frequency and intensity of their seizures, and THC is like magic to those undergoing chemotherapy or in a dangerous stage of an eating disorder because it removes nausea and stimulates appetite almost immediately. Today, most developed nations offer a path for certain types of medical patients to obtain cannabis as treatment under the direction of their health care providers.

Yet, it wasn't always like this. Even just 20 years ago, at the start of the 21st century, medical marijuana programs were brand-new — and it was California leading the charge. Why did California kickstart the medical marijuana revolution? Read on to find out.

Cannabis in the 20th Century

For most of human history, cannabis was utterly unregulated — in fact, it was generally revered as an incredibly important crop. Many cultures integrated cannabis into their spiritual practices, and almost everywhere, cannabis was used as an early medical treatment for pain, digestive trouble and other health issues. Even in America, farmers were encouraged to grow hemp in many of the original colonies and states, though white Americans didn't use cannabis for its psychological or physiological effects until the 19th century and even then, they tended to use tinctures in a medical capacity.

At the turn of the 20th century, the demographics of American cities began to shift. White Americans began to notice an influx of Latin American immigrants, who were drawn to American shores thanks to the country's industrialization and economic boom. With them, Latin immigrants brought their culture — which included smoking cannabis recreationally. Fearful of so many aspects of these newcomers, white Americans in power began passing legislation to control Latin communities, which included a nationwide prohibition on "marihuana" by 1937.

Though California boasted a large population of Spanish speakers at the turn of the century, the state passed regulations against cannabis consumption not because of Latin immigrants but rather due to a flood of South Asian immigrants, who used hash. California's anti-cannabis measures first went into effect in 1907, and by 1932, over 60 percent of narcotics-related arrests in Los Angeles involved cannabis. Over the next few decades, the state continued to raise the stakes for cannabis convictions from a misdemeanor and fine to a felony and life imprisonment, in some cases.

California's Counter-culture Attitude

By the mid-20th century, California was a popular destination for those unable to fit into contemporary American culture. Far from the cultural centers of the East Coast, California and the West offered the opportunity to experiment with alternative art, opinions and lifestyles, and movements like beat, bohemia and funk quickly took root in California cities in the 1950s. Countercultural leaders encouraged divergent modes of thinking, speaking and behaving, which often meant using unconventional intoxicating substances like weed. By this time, anti-cannabis propaganda was at its height, and marijuana-related arrests were rampant. However, advocacy groups emerged, and systems for growing and distributing cannabis without attracting the attention of authorities became successful.

The AIDS Epidemic

HIV is thought to have arrived in the United States in New York City in the early 1970s, and by 1976, the disease had spread to San Francisco. Because the disease incubates for such a long period of time, doctors and researchers became aware of the epidemic in the early 1980s — well after the virus had spread far and wide. California suffered significantly due to AIDS thanks in part to the state's general acceptance of counterculture practices like intravenous drug use and sexual liberation. Unfortunately, this meant that California hospitals were packed with suffering AIDS patients for much of the 1980s and 1990s, and state and national agencies did little to nothing to help.

Fortunately, cannabis users stepped in. Mary Rathbun was already well-known as a purveyor of "magical" baked goods in San Francisco, but she became a cannabis legend when she donated her pot brownies to AIDS and cancer patients free of charge in the 1980s. Doctors and nurses noticed that patients consuming her baked goods tended to gain weight and enjoy longer lifespans, which led to research finding cannabis as a critical resource for reducing nausea and stimulating appetite for those with certain health conditions.

Cannabis activists in the Bay Area created a buyers club in 1994, which helped medical patients connect with cannabis growers and dealers to obtain treatment to improve their outcomes. This was the first medical marijuana program in the United States, and at the time, it was completely illegal. Fortunately, other buyers clubs around California compelled state lawmakers to pass a statewide medical marijuana program — the first legislation of its kind in the country.

Medical Marijuana Access Today

Weed in California is not difficult to access, thanks to recreational regulations that allow adults over 21 to buy and grow their own bud. Still, California's medical marijuana program remains an incredibly important resource for patients suffering from myriad diseases, from AIDS and cancer to epilepsy to chronic pain and anxiety. Many medical patients across the U.S. has California to thank for leading the charge in medical cannabis legislation — but there is still so much to accomplish in cannabis activism.

Get the Latest Marijuana News &
Content in your Inbox!

All your support helps The Green Fund keep writing content for all you
marijuana enthusiasts and potential pot stock investors

Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.