Marijuana History In United States Sees Milestone, Pot First Banned In California 100 Years Ago

Without Weed, 'I'd Be Dead Now'

Stricken with cerebral palsy after almost being strangled in the womb by his umbilical cord, the 41-year-old Valley Village resident takes a few puffs of medical marijuana and immediately feels relief.

"Weed works," he says simply.

The "Diablo Kush" and "Velvet Kush" strains from Reseda Discount Caregivers dispensary relax his stiffly contorted muscles and stave off the severe depression that prompted him to make several suicide attempts over the years, including cutting his wrists and injecting Drano and Raid into his veins.

The hunched figure eventually stands up straight and takes a few steps without a cane -- all while cracking jokes -- showing a glimpse of the bodybuilder and standup comic he used to be.

These days in California medical marijuana patients like Zee can more or less openly take their "medication." But of course it wasn't always so.

A century ago this year was when California first banned marijuana.

In fact, weed historian and legalization advocate Dale Gieringer pinpoints the key date to Aug. 10, 1913, when a new regulation quietly took effect from the state Board of Pharmacy that added "locoweed" to the state Poison Act.

"They began launching raids," said Gieringer, California coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Law enforcement would pose as addicts who needed a fix but didn't have a doctor's note, then arrest the druggist."

Before the early 1900s, though, weed had a relatively long legal history of highs and lows in the United States. Some historians believe the Jamestown settlers brought cannabis to the United States in 1611.

In the 1700's, Gieringer said, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. By the 1800's, he added, it was sold in certain drugstores, and touted as a cure for migraines and menstrual cramps by the doctor of Queen Victoria.

In the early 1900s, however, a wave of states including California began banning use of the drug without a prescription.

In the 1930s, the country's first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, launched a media campaign that publicized what he claimed were criminal cases involving marijuana. It claimed marijuana drove normally sane youth to become homicidal maniacs who murdered their own families.

Around the same time, a church group produced a film entitled "Tell Your Children" to scare teenagers away from marijuana. The 68-minute film warned of consequences by depicting teenagers using the drug and then committing murder and descending into madness.

By the 1960s and 1970s, however, marijuana had become so popular in the counterculture that the same film was seen as a campy, ironic classic and was retitled "Reefer Madness."

At Woodstock, half a million people crowded into a field in New York state for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, openly smoking joints while listening to performers sing about "mary jane." Janis Joplin repeatedly asked the crowd if they were staying stoned.

Shortly after, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act classifying marijuana as a drug with a "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."

When arrests due to marijuana began to overburden the criminal justice system in California, state and local authorities began easing restrictions -- including downgrading simple possession from a felony to misdemeanor to infraction.

In 1996, California voters legalized medical marijuana through Proposition 215.

It was so vaguely worded, however, that by the early 2000s, several hundred pot shops opened in Los Angeles, selling marijuana. One of the law's proponents became embittered, dubbing them "little more than dope dealers with storefronts." A backlash against Prop. 215 formed as cities began trying to reassert control over the shops.

In 2013, Los Angeles voters approved Measure D, outlawing all but about 135 dispensaries and imposing a series of zoning restrictions and taxes.

Freddy Sayegh, general counsel for HempCon, the largest marijuana trade show, warned this would create monopolies.

He called it "inhumane" to severely restrict access to medical marijuana.

"I don't advocate for healthy young adults to consume cannabis just to be stoned," Sayegh said. "But since 1960, there have been over 20 million Americans arrested on a marijuana-related offense -- that's 20 million people who would be denied entry into college, medical school, law enforcement, politics."

He insisted not a single death has attributed to toxicity levels in marijuana, whereas vast numbers of people die of prescription drug overdoses each year.

"Bottom line is marijuana is illegal because of politics," Sayegh said. "This is a mass political attack by the government, by the pharmaceutical companies, by the large corporations who cannot control and dominate the multi-billion dollar marijuana trade"

Gieringer said a statewide coalition is being formed that would attempt in 2016 to post a ballot measure to legalize marijuana -- not just for medicinal use but recreational use -- in California, something which both Colorado and Washington D.C. did this year.

A similar ballot measure failed in 2010, but he cites recent surveys showing a majority of people now support legalization.

"We should respect Americans' right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Gieringer said. "This is a country where people are free to do what they want in their private lives -- use alcohol, cigarettes, guns, do all sorts of bizarre sex practices."

"Americans should be free to smoke a joint too, if we want," he added.

Kris Vosburgh, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, the largest organization of patients, medical professionals, and others promoting safe and legal access to cannabis, has reservations about that expanded legalization.

"In the rush to legalize, proponents should take into consideration that patients are not going away and their needs still need to be addressed."

"Adult users looking for the psychotropic effect are going to want to prioritize a certain ingredient of marijuana and deprioritize others with medicinal benefits."

David Evans, a former research scientist who now serves as special adviser to the nonprofit Drug Free American Foundation, warned against the widespread use of marijuana.

"There's very little medical evidence it's helping anybody get well," he said. "It may make you feel better, but that doesn't mean you're getting better."

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency, "Research clearly demonstrates that marijuana has the potential to cause problems in daily life or make a person's existing problems worse."

"In fact, heavy marijuana users generally report lower life satisfaction, poorer mental and physical health, relationship problems and less academic and career success compared to their peers who come from similar backgrounds."

Zee, however, believes the opposite.

He asserts that without medical marijuana, "I'd be dead now."

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