History of Prop 215
Since banning of cannabis at the beginning of XX century, a history of this plant in the U.S. has been full of prohibitions and restrictive policies. Federal laws still ban marijuana use even for medical purposes, claiming that cannabis is a Schedule I drug.
However, cannabis advocates and enthusiasts throughout the country took their initiatives to ease restrictions on growing and use of marijuana on the local and state levels. That’s how Prop 215 emerged.
It all started in California in the 1990s. Dennis Peron, a marijuana activist who lost his partner Jonathan West to AIDS, decided to take an action towards accessibility of cannabis for medical purposes. His first move was to organize Proposition P in San Francisco. This medical marijuana initiative was a resolution declaring the support for medical marijuana by the city and aimed to nudge state lawmakers to make cannabis available for medical use. It passed with 79% of the vote. California’s officials seemed to react positively, approving two bills in 1994 and 1995 that recognized marijuana as medication. Against the strong public support, then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed both measures, believing that marijuana is harmful whatsoever.
Struggling with ill health, Peron cooperated with Dr. Tod Mikuriya to develop Proposition 215. Dr. Mikuriya has already worked on decriminalization of cannabis and was threatened with consequences by different officials. Mikuriya’s primary goal was to declassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled drug, and he was traveling around the world trying to find support for the medical use of cannabis. However, the federal government’s Task Force along with California’s Attorney General and California’s Medical Board were aimed to prosecute any physician willing to recommend medical cannabis.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, California’s constitution has allowed citizens and organizations to bring initiatives to the statewide referendum for a yes-or-no vote. The fierce battle for a proposition and a constant refusal to allow medical marijuana use by Clinton’s administration turned Peron to the power of voters. Together with Dale Gieringer and Scott Imler they organized Californians for Compassionate Use, a political action committee which aim was to bring the issue of medical marijuana use on the ballot under the name of ‘The Compassionate Use Act’. Veteran activist Chris Conrad joined the committee to run a volunteer-based petition collection. The aim was to collect 433,000 signatures required to qualify for the November ballot.
The deadline was getting closer, and it became apparent that volunteers could not raise a necessary amount. Peron’s PAC turned to the California for Medical Rights organization whose donors were, among others, George Soros and Laurance Rockefeller. Their financial support brought professional petition circulators who managed to collect about 850,000 signatures.
The government fought back and hard. A huge number of law enforcement teams, drug prevention groups, and elected officials came forward to oppose the ballot. The prominent prosecutors and officers were petitioning that it was a dangerous initiative that could lead to growing the unlimited quantities of marijuana without regulations. In their eyes, the ballot was rooting for legalization.
The opposition was strong. Prominent oncologists, nurses, and two politicians showed support for the ballot. San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan stated that he supported this Proposition because he did not ‘want to send cancer patients to jail for using marijuana.’
By the moment of voting, Peron and his supporters made the tremendous efforts and raised around $2.5 million dollars. For comparison, their opponents, under the name Citizens for Drug-Free California, received only $33,612 in donations. On November 5, 1996, the Compassionate Use Act passed with the approval of 55,6 percent of state voters. California became the first state to make the medical marijuana use legal.
Proposition 215 protects patients and primary caregivers against a state-level prosecution for cultivation, possession, or marijuana use for medical purpose with a physician approval. This act also protects doctors from revoking medical licenses and the subsequent prosecution for recommending cannabis.
Critics pointed out that the language of the initiative was ambiguous and left room for a broader interpretation. For example, they claimed, Section 1(A) described the ailments qualifying for treatment using cannabis as ‘cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.’ The last part of this sentence, in their opinion, might allow de facto legalization of marijuana for general use.
The Clinton’s Administration underlined that nothing had changed and federal law still prohibited marijuana use for any purpose. Then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala expressed her concern that Prop. 215 would become a ground for a harmful belief that marijuana may be beneficial. The last hit was that federal enforcement targeted Califonia physicians who recommended marijuana.
The Drug Enforcement Agency threatened to revoke their medical licenses and prohibit medical practitioners from participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The ability to punish physicians on the federal level was limited under a ruling of the US District Court for Northern California in Conant v. McCaffrey in 2000.
Despite the protection that Prop. 215 granted to physicians and subsequent trials, the California Medical Board continued to prosecute many licensed physicians for recommending cannabis. In 2002, in a trial involving Dr. Tod Mikuriya, the Court ruled that doctors prescribing medical marijuana must first conduct a good-faith physical exam and review patient’s medical history to make a decision regarding a possible need for cannabis treatment.
Prop 215 and SB 420
In 2004, Senate Bill 420 took in effect and established guidelines for implementation of the California Medical Marijuana Program. Urban areas in Northern California became the center of California evolving marijuana market. However, rural areas like Santa Cruz faced more restrictions and control. SB420 also defined limits of possession and established a voluntary ID card system for California medical marijuana patients.
Federal officials refused to give up. Since the passing of Prop. 215, they have tried different approaches, including raids, busts, and prosecutions. Federal law enforcement also threatened to seize any property that was leased for medical cannabis cultivation or distribution.
The Supreme Court ruling of 2005 reaffirmed that federal law enforcement still had the right to prosecute anyone who dispensed, possess, or used marijuana. It has not affected the Compassionate Use Act, but maintained the power of federal government and its right to prohibit marijuana use on the ground of potential illegal trade.
The ongoing changes
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama also signaled that he would stop the DEA’s raids in California. In March 2009 federal officials finally announced that they would no longer pursue medical marijuana use. However, after the election, the amount of non-violent drug offenses grew alongside with a nationwide riding campaign on medical marijuana dispensaries. California took a hard hit with numerous dispensary closures and arrests. In 2014, President Obama stated that he feels cannabis is not as dangerous as alcohol.
In the words of Dennis Peron, an activist who started this campaign, 1996 was a year when ‘the stars aligned for medical marijuana’. The aftermath of AIDS epidemic of 80’s and early 90’s along with election’s fever and developing studies on effects of marijuana on cancer patients came together to create a solid ground for a shift in society’s view. Later, it led to a chain reaction across North American and ignited a movement for marijuana legislation across the states.
We are still facing challenges connected with medical marijuana use and fragile legal grounds allowing cannabis business operations and distribution. It is a long road ahead. With hope, willingness to change, and slowly developing social and political views we are ready to face whatever future has for us. Don’t forget to support your local cooperatives and physicians and send them love and appreciation!