By ISABELLA VANDERHEIDEN | Times-Standard
Proposition 215 celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Proposition 215, known as the Medical Marijuana Initiative or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, enabled cannabis to be a recommended medication by doctors to their patients and also allowed the plant to be grown and sold in California. Proposition 215 sparked a new era for cannabis and since California’s landmark legislation, 35 more states have adopted similar laws.
Prior to Proposition 215, possession or cultivation of marijuana for medical treatment was prohibited by the state and considered a criminal offense.
“The War on Drugs was upon us. Proposition 215 signaled an end to the police state and the oppression we were under,” said Sunshine Cereceda, founder of Sunboldt Grown in Southern Humboldt County. “The biggest change was we were protected, we were no longer oppressed, but it took us a while to feel comfortable and to put our plants just out under the full sun.”
Dennis Peron, one of the co-authors of Proposition 215, pursued the legalization of medical cannabis in San Francisco in the early 1990s because his partner was suffering from AIDS.
“I did Prop. 215 because my lover had AIDS,” Peron told the Times-Standard in 2016. “He ultimately died, but then I did Prop. 215 for all the people who couldn’t get treatment. We had people going to jail who had AIDS. People were intimidating cancer patients. I wanted them to be able to defend themselves, but it turns out I wrote 215 for a sick nation that was being swallowed up by prohibition, a nation that created fear toward anyone who would dare to talk about marijuana.”
Cara Cordoni, an anchor on the Cannabis Cooperative Economics Group, was a close friend to Peron before he died of lung cancer in 2018. She said Peron was tired of seeing people criminalized “for seeking a remedy for their suffering.”
“He was instrumental in the creation of a really big dispensary on Market Street that was sometimes called the ‘Five-Story Felony’ that not only provided cannabis to patients, but it was a place of social healing,” Cordoni said. “People who had AIDS were stigmatized and they were abandoned by their families, their communities, by society in general. The dispensary on Market Street was really a gathering place where people sat together and were company for each other.”
Peron often made the point that the movement wasn’t just about cannabis, “it was the love, the community, the connection, and the camaraderie that was part of the healing for people,” she said.
The passage of Proposition 215 was a gamechanger for cannabis, not only in California but across the United States.
“Prop. 215 enabled cannabis to be seen not as a drug, but as a plant medicine that had positive impacts,” Cordoni said. “It got more medical people involved in studying it and it really illuminated the history of cannabis. This is a plant that has been part of our cultures, our societies, our medicine cabinet for thousands of years.”
Cereceda said she had never really considered the medical benefits of cannabis before the passage of Proposition 215.
“It just really brought it to my knowledge the medical qualities of cannabis,” she said. “It became clear that medical was a pathway to end prohibition, of course, it never should have been prohibited in the first place.”
Mariellen Jurkovich, director of the Humboldt Patient Resource Center dispensaries, said she originally joined the organization to lend a hand with the business but became increasingly interested in the medical benefits of cannabis.
“I still believe that anytime you use cannabis, it’s medical,” she said. “Whether you’re using it when you get off work and you just want to come home and relax instead of maybe drinking alcohol or you’re using it for your for your health or you’re kind of shy and it helps your social anxiety, I find those all of those scenarios to be for our health.”
Jurkovich remembers Proposition 215 being promoted as a way to help people with chronic illness find comfort.
“They billed it as something that people were using for AIDS or for cancer,” she said. “The advertisements were like, ‘Your grandmother is using it because she has cancer, we should legalize it so that she can still use it.’ The War on Drugs, the ‘just say no’ campaign really made people look at cannabis like it was heroin. I think leading up to and the passage of Prop. 215 is when people began seeing it differently. Dennis Peron was instrumental.”
However, Cordoni said the legalization of recreational cannabis with the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016 changed the way the medical benefits of the plant were viewed.
“Before, it was based on compassion and based on well-being, which is unique even now as we look at legalization sweeping the country and the world,” she said. “I think Dennis Peron’s greatest resistance to Prop. 64 is that there was no compassion in it. There’s been no room for people to give medicine away, for patients to have access to low-cost or free cannabis. That that was his biggest fear and heartbreak of seeing the way that we were going about legalization when Prop. 215 had really worked so well.”
Peron argued that legalization, specifically with Proposition 64, was all about money and regulation.
“Money. It’s always money. It’s so cynical,” he told the Times-Standard. “They say they want to help us but they actually want to hurt us. For some reason, they feel like we have to pay taxes because we use marijuana, but if they increase the costs, they limit access to medication.”
Cordoni said the notion of medical versus recreational didn’t resonate with Peron.
“His point was if you’re taking it to alter your consciousness as in to get high, to feel happy to feel more spiritual — that’s all a medical application,” she said. “The loss of that perspective has been a detriment to our more medically challenged patients because now many dispensaries often are not focused on medical applications.”
Legalization has also left behind many small cannabis farmers, she added.
“Legalization has really not taken care of our legacy farmers and we’re one of the only states that really have a history of a legacy community of farmers,” she said. “Especially as we did it here, there was very little to protect them or grandfather them or help them make that transition. As a result, we’re seeing an extinction event of small mom-and-pop or legacy farmers That’s a huge cultural loss for all of us.”
Jurkovich agreed, adding that “We’re losing our story.”
“We used to know the makers of our product we used to bring them in here, we used to tell their story,” she said. “I can’t go to a farmer and say, ‘Hey! I love your stuff, I would love to get it.’ That’s not legal anymore. I have to go through a distributor. I think that’s what’s killing us. I don’t think we will be able to make it in Humboldt County because we don’t have a story anymore.”
Cordoni said she holds out hope that Humboldt County’s small farmers will be able to pull through in the long run.
“I’m working with Cooperation Humboldt on a cooperative cannabis economy group looking at creating a solidarity economy that includes our cannabis community, that doesn’t exploit the land or the people,” she said. “We haven’t given up. You know, Dennis failed many times before Prop. 215 passed. He held that as a message of persistence, of hope, and of doing it for the reasons of being a service to the community and to the plant. That’s the beautiful, lasting legacy that he leaves all of us.”