marijuana legalization

From Drug War to Dispensaries: An Oral History of Weed Legalization’s First Wave

Photo: Brent Lewis/Denver Post via Getty Images

On November 6, the total number of cannabis-friendly states rose to 33, as voters in Michigan passed a bill allowing recreational marijuana use, and Missouri and Utah — Utah! — legalized medical weed.

It’s a far cry from the years leading up to 1996, when Californians helped precipitate a social revolution by passing Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana ballot initiative that marked the beginning of the national legalization movement as a credible entity. At the time, the War on Drugs was continuing unabated under the Clinton administration — a full-spectrum push that included draconian crime bills and Tipper Gore trying to keep pot leaves from appearing on the cover of rap albums.

But the folks behind Prop 215 had powerful allies, too — including George Soros. After the Soviet Union fell and democracy flourished in Eastern Europe, the billionaire advocate of open society ideals was looking for a new cause. And so along with the founder of Men’s Wearhouse (“I guarantee it!”) and the chairman of Progressive Insurance, Soros threw his considerable financial weight behind a ballot initiative written by a San Francisco pot dealer and AIDS activist known for smoking up the halls of the California State Legislature.

Twenty-two years later, with dispensaries opening up in every corner of the country, we still look back at Prop 215 as the moment the drug debate changed forever.

Here is how the people who worked to legalize medical marijuana in California remember it.

Ethan Nadelmann, legalization activist and founder of the Drug Policy Alliance: What you’ve got to remember is that in the mid-’80s and into the early ’90s, the Drug War catapults into the American imagination at a hysterical pitch. There are presidential speeches, the New York Times has a special editor on it, two or three times a year the major news magazines are putting the Drug War on their covers. I refer to this stage as McCarthyism on steroids. It doesn’t really drop off until the first Gulf War. It’s almost as if the first Gulf War comes along and people are like, “Okay, America has a real war again.”

Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML and co-author of Prop 215: The legalization movement pretty much died out in 1980 when Reagan came to power. Things got worse and worse, and it was at its nadir in 1991. But ’91 was also when the medical marijuana movement started, when Dennis Peron (who died in January of this year) and a bunch of his comrades put Proposition P on the San Francisco ballot. It declared that San Francisco was in favor of medical marijuana. It was symbolic because it was just a city initiative. But it was the first victory the marijuana reform movement had scored since the 1970s.

It was an incredibly hostile environment at that time, but Dennis was in a unique situation. He was a longtime pot dealer and gay-rights activist. Back in the ’70s, he had a restaurant called the Big Top in the Castro, where he was basically selling pot publicly. This wasn’t medical, they were just selling pot. So in 1978, Dennis gets Prop W on the San Francisco ballot, which declared the DA and the cops should not enforce the marijuana laws. It passed and Dennis was looking to Mayor Moscone to open it up more. Dennis was planning to go full steam ahead with the Big Top. But then Moscone and Harvey Milk were assassinated. Dianne Feinstein became mayor and put the kibosh on the whole thing. The whole tone of the city changed and the Big Top got shut down.

So Dennis went underground and then the ’80s came along, and Reagan, and the escalating Drug War. But in 1991, the conversation surrounding marijuana legalization changed with the AIDS epidemic. There was widespread medical use of marijuana by AIDS patients suffering from wasting syndrome and other AIDS-related illnesses. Dennis saw that and knew there was a lot of support for medical marijuana used by AIDS sufferers. Prop P passes in ’91 with 80 percent and Dennis opens up the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club and starts openly selling medical marijuana to medical users. Sure enough, San Francisco cops and the whole San Francisco establishment respected Dennis’s club.

George Soros. Photo: Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Nadelmann: The next pivotal moment for the movement is the summer of ’92, when I get a call out of the blue from a guy named George Soros inviting me to lunch. He knew about me because I think he asked an aide, “If you’re interested in the Drug War and alternative policy, who do you talk to?” I would be the first name on the list.

So I meet George on some 95-degree day in New York, and we have lunch in his office. He’s not quite famous yet. And we spend two hours talking and arguing. And I’m telling him what he has right and what he has wrong.

It’s clear that his passion is the open society. His focus had been bringing down socialist dictatorships in the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. And that effort succeeded more quickly than anyone anticipated, including Soros. Now that socialist dictatorship had fallen, and open society was emergent around the world, he was asking himself the question, “Well, what about America does not reflect open society ideals?” And I think the first thing that hit him between the eyes was the War on Drugs. It sort of encompassed all the non-open society elements of American political culture.

So at the end of this lunch Soros said to me, “Well, we basically agree on the core issues. I’m a very busy man. But I have substantial resources. So let’s assume that what I want to do is empower you to accomplish our common objectives.”

Bill Zimmerman, political consultant and Prop 215 campaign manager: 1993 is when the seniors come into play. There was an oncology nurse named Anna Boyce, who was in her 60s, and there was an underground movement in oncology wards around the country advocating pot. So her husband got cancer. She obtained marijuana, helped him use it, and was convinced that it worked. California has an institution called the California Senior Legislature, which empowers seniors to advocate for legislation. So Anna started advocating within the California Senior Legislature that there should be a law for legal medical marijuana, and a bill was considered and got passed by the state legislature in 1993. The governor — Pete Wilson — vetoed it, but there was an indication that he did so reluctantly. So they brought it back in ’94. It passed the legislature again but the governor decided he was going to run for president in ’96 so he vetoed the second piece of legislation. Everything was indicating that the support was out there.

Nadelmann: Chuck Blitz. He was an interesting social-justice entrepreneur in Santa Barbara. He calls me in early ’95 and says, “Let’s organize a retreat on your issue.” So in March ’95 we organize this meeting and I invite some of the key activists and the emerging major donors — Peter Lewis [the chairman of Progressive Insurance], John Sperling [the founder of Phoenix University, “It didn’t have a bad rep back then”], and others — and then Chuck invites the political pros.

Zimmerman: Chuck calls me up to attend a meeting on the viability of the medical marijuana initiative. I had no experience on Drug War stuff, but I had a reputation for getting progressive stuff passed. I was the go-to guy for ballot-initiative campaigns.

So I show up and you have the seniors, who were very straight-laced, and Dennis Peron and his people. They’d go to the legislature and smoke marijuana in the halls. They flaunted it. So these were not comfortable allies. And Ethan is there kind of as a representative of Soros. So there are all these different threads coming together at the Santa Barbara meeting.

Three weeks later, we mounted a public-opinion poll. I put into the poll, “Do you have a family member or a friend that used medical marijuana?” Thirty-three percent answered yes. That’s when I knew there was a chance of winning this thing. That 33 percent was the buffer against law-enforcement pushback.

Gieringer: At Blitz’s, I was the guy wrangling the California ballot-initiative idea. I didn’t know if I made much of an impression. But I did get a call afterward from Peter Lewis, who said he was impressed. He offered $50,000 in matching funds if I could get nine others to get to $500,000, which was how much money it would take to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.

But Dennis only knew how to do things the black market way. He had no bank, he dealt in cash. I don’t think he had a social security number. He didn’t pay taxes! Dennis wasn’t interested in fundraising. Dennis thought he could just collect the signatures himself, which is like 500,000 of them. After much discussion, we finally printed up an initiative in fall ’95, which gave us November to April to get on the ’96 ballot.

Nadelmann: So in December ’95, I get a phone call from Ed Rosenthal [the California marijuana activist], saying, “Ethan, you gotta help. You know, Dennis, he’s getting these signatures, we just need a little help. Can you get some money from Soros?” I call Dennis and he says, “Thanks but no thanks, we really wanna do this as an activist thing.” They would have ended up with 25,000 signatures and fallen short by 500,000 signatures and that would have been that. But about a month later, I get another call from Ed. I call Dennis and he says, “Okay, I guess we could use a little help.” So I have a green light from Dennis.

I call Bill Zimmerman and say, “What would it take to do this initiative?” He says, “Well, you’re gonna need close to 2 million bucks to get the signatures and to do the campaign.”

I get Soros to put up half-a-million bucks, but it’s important that people in California were seen as taking the lead on this. So I also recruit George Zimmer, the founder and head of Men’s Wearhouse. He’s a California guy, a big personality, and obviously a marijuana guy. He commits to give or raise half a million. And Peter Lewis also puts up $500,000.

Later on, at crunch time when we’re short signatures and need a little more money to get us over, I get Laurance Rockefeller onboard. I gave him a copy of the op-ed that his father, John D. Rockefeller, published in 1932. It basically said, “Look, I hate alcohol, I’ve been a teetotaler all my life. I was the No. 1 donor to the temperance movement and movement for Prohibition. But I have now come to the conclusion that the cure I advocated of Prohibition has done more harm than good.” So I give this to Laurance and a few weeks later I call him up and I say, “Laurance, you know we could really use your help with a personal contribution.” And he says, “You know, Ethan, I just got hit by this terrible Ponzi scheme, I lost a lot of money, but I’ll give ya 50 grand.”

So I hire Bill Zimmerman, another California person, to run the campaign and Bill is kind of a tough political consultant. Bill sits down with Dennis and they try to make nice, but Bill basically says, “Dennis, we’re running this thing now. You play in San Francisco, but you’re not the statewide messenger. We need to get people like doctors and patients and others to be the face of this campaign.” This is when the movement has its first moment from being this kind of fringe political movement to actually playing ball in the big leagues of American politics.

George Zimmer. Photo: Men’s Wearhouse

Gieringer: Our group was hoping Nadelmann would give the money to us. But they were leery of the unprofessional nature plus Dennis being an illegal drug dealer.

Dennis resented that they were hogging in on our turf. I welcomed it. But there persisted a tension between our campaign and their campaign, and that ended up in a struggle over who controlled the ballot language.

Zimmerman: Once you’re qualified for the ballot, the state publishes a voter booklet with the arguments for and against the various ballot initiatives. Peron had written one that we thought was too flamboyantly arguing full legalization. We’d done another. We were arguing who should submit and agreed to let a focus group decide, and we would pay for it. After the focus group, it was clear that our statement was the most effective. When we submitted our argument to the state, we were told that Peron had already submitted an argument. So he violated the agreement.

Gieringer: At that point the secretary of state wanted to know who would be the proponent. It turned out that when Dennis filed his initiative, he included Anna Boyce’s name. So Anna Boyce was this nice little old grandlady co-signing with Dennis. So there were actually two proponents. In the end, when it came to deciding between Dennis’s team and Zimmerman’s group, Anna Boyce decided she would side with Zimmerman, understanding that big-time money and professionals were important. So then it was up to the secretary of state, and he awarded it to Zimmerman’s group because they had the money.

Zimmerman: Peron and his camp thought I was too mainstream. We made three television commercials for the campaign. We had one about a school principal in San Francisco who had been a breast cancer victim, who said the only way she could get through chemotherapy was with marijuana; we filmed Anna Boyce sitting at the grave of her husband and telling her story about how marijuana had eased her husband’s suffering; and finally, we had a third commercial featuring an oncologist, an older guy with a beard, talking about how marijuana is the best drug available for dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy. All three commercials were designed to be very emotional, designed to evoke sympathy, and they were effective.

But it opened a rift between me and the HIV activists because they wanted to feature HIV victims. They were consumed by the injustice, and properly so, with which HIV victims were being treated, or not being treated. They wanted to feature that, and we realized that would turn off a good portion of the electorate, and while it was the right thing to do in some sense, it wasn’t effective political strategy.

Dennis Peron. Photo: Axel Koester/Corbis via Getty Images

The campaign overall was pursuing a press strategy that matched the advertising strategy I just described. But Dennis Peron was off doing his own thing, getting his own kind of press within San Francisco, not only on HIV but on open consumption of marijuana. They never gave up on arguing for full legalization. Peron thought it was an effective way to convincing people that it should be legalized: just openly smoke it and dare the cops to arrest you, thereby demonstrating the absurdity of the laws. So Peron was doing that in San Francisco, but San Francisco media reaches far beyond the city limits, and covers a good portion of Northern California, which includes a lot of conservative areas, which were not sympathetic to the culture within the city limits of San Francisco. So in summer of ’96 I had several meetings with Peron and tried to explain the damage he was doing to the overall statewide campaign — and he agreed to back off.

So one day in September, after Peron agreed to back off, we get a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle and there on the front page is a huge picture of Peron smoking a joint and arguing that Prop 215 should pass so anybody can do this wherever and whenever they want. That broke the relationship, and I don’t think we ever spoke again after that.

Gieringer: I remember the picture in the newspaper of Dennis smoking a joint because there was a focus group organized by Zimmerman. One of the things they did was present the newspaper picture. Most people in the focus group laughed at it and weren’t terribly bothered by it. But there was an understandable concern by Zimmerman’s group. Thank goodness it wasn’t until after the election when Dennis said in the paper, “All marijuana use is medical.”

There was also the famous raid on Dennis’s Cannabis Club in the summer of ’96, in the middle of the campaign. It’s August and we have this right-wing state attorney general, Dan Lungren. He got the state cops to raid and close down Dennis’s club. But it backfired on Lungren: Doonesbury did a famous cartoon about Lungren arresting sick people and he became a laughingstock.

Zimmerman: In the end we were able to isolate Peron and his people as a sideshow within San Francisco and dominate the larger story with the medical issues and the medical victims that we were featuring. We did that by increasing our advertising budget in San Francisco, which took the spotlight away from Peron. When he was the only story, the press went to him. So when we became active with our own messages we were able to prevent Peron from dominating the press coverage.

Nadelmann: Lo and behold, on Election Day ’96, Prop 215 gets more votes than Bill Clinton does in California. Which was a very impressive showing.

Geiringer: Dennis staged a celebration in front of the club. He had a klieg light. We all flocked there. I remember at midnight, I lit up a joint for a cancer patient that I happened to know, because the prop became effective on midnight of Election Day.

I really thought once this happens the Feds would have to reschedule marijuana. I had no conception of how the federal drug bureaucracy would react. It went into defensive suppression mode.

Nadelmann: Around Christmastime of ’96, the Clinton administration officials, the drug czar, and other drug warriors, do a press conference. They stand up and they say we want to make doctors and patients aware that any doctor that talks about the so-called benefits of medical marijuana will be subject to sanctions, ranging from loss of license to criminal prosecution.

My new legal director, Dan Abrahamson, who had been successful in death penalty cases, recruits Graham Boyd, who would go on to work with the ACLU, to brainstorm, and they come up with the idea that we need to sue the federal government for violating the First Amendment rights of doctors and patients.

The ACLU of Northern California gets involved. In early ’97, we file a lawsuit. First we get a temporary restraining order, then a preliminary injunction, then we win the case in federal court, then in the court of appeals, and this goes over the next six or seven years. In 2003 the Supreme Court refuses to hear the government appeal, thereby locking in the right of doctors and patients to talk about medical marijuana. If we had lost that battle, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse and co-funder of Prop 215 Campaign: I don’t remember where I was when Prop 215 passed, but I do remember where I was in November of 2016, when Prop 64 passed, legalizing marijuana across the board in California. I was at a party. What I remember about the party was that it should have been one of the most exuberant moments of all of our lives — but because Trump had won the presidency, it put a pall over the whole evening.

I don’t understand why marijuana didn’t become legal in the same way that alcohol is. I envisioned clubs scattered around the state where people can smoke marijuana in a collective environment, much like people go in a bar. I don’t understand why that never happened, because that seems like the right application. Kind of like in Dennis Peron’s club in the ’90s. There’s a great deal of camaraderie that can happen with people who are smoking marijuana together, for any reason. I think the idea of passing a joint is the same as what Indians would have experienced passing a peace pipe. There’s a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that I think is good for your blood pressure and other biometrics. It’s too bad that we seem to be hung up on making sure we regulate it.

An Oral History of Weed Legalization’s First Wave