“We hold it for a friend”—saying it makes curator Sarah Seiter chuckle. It is a worn-out line, associated with weed smokers trying to get off the hook for possessing an illegal item. Seiter was using it to explain that the Oakland Museum of California doesn’t own the cannabis plants that will be on display in its upcoming marijuana exhibition; the plants are on loan from a local dispensary.
The exhibition, “Altered State: Marijuana in California,” opens on April 16 and will run until September 25. According to the museum, it will be the first focused on marijuana, with the exception of displays at museums entirely devoted to the topic.
Seiter recognizes that talking about marijuana has its humorous aspects, but her exhibition on the controversial drug is anything but a bunch of stoner jokes. The exhibition, which features art, political documents, scientific information and multimedia displays, took 18 months to prepare and consists of ten sections, such as “Cannabis Science,” “Politically Loaded,” “Sacred Ganja,” and “Recreational Reefer.” The idea is to let visitors explore the very essence of weed—without getting high. And it does so in a timely manner; California voters will likely decide several ballot measures regarding the legalization or taxation of marijuana in November. Currently, pot is legal in California only for medical use.
“We want people to have an opportunity to think about these issues before the vote. Hopefully this makes the debate easier and more productive,” says Seiter, a transplant from Colorado, where the recreational use of marijuana has been legal since 2012.
In many of the exhibit sections, people are able to contribute to the discussion. For example, in the section called “Criminal Dope,” visitors can share their experiences of what it is like to deal with the police regarding marijuana in Oakland. “Instead of the police filing a report on you, you get to file a report on the police,” Seiter says.
Marijuana has often been the epicenter of polarized debate. But in California in 2016, even showcasing pot at a museum doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows. Seiter says that there has been “surprisingly” little opposition to the exhibition. “We had a couple mock-up sessions where we let the people to come in, but the feedback was mostly supportive, from the audience as well as from the board of the museum,” she says.
The feedback from the mock-up sessions also led to adoption of a new section for young visitors. “We had a lot of families who were using this as an opportunity to talk to their kids about drugs—have that moment of ‘Let’s sit down and have this talk,’” she says. “That was a function we could serve and had not even thought about” before the mock-up sessions.
A visit from Oakland North to a couple of local dispensaries seeking comment on the museum display took them by surprise, as nobody seemed to know about the exhibit or have a strong opinion about it.
One reason for the mild and positive preliminary reaction to the exhibition is definitely that Oakland is, as Seiter puts it, a “cannabis-friendly city.”
“Oakland has a long history of dispensaries being allowed to operate. We have also had a lot of efforts on cannabis reform here,” she says, bringing up Measure Z, adopted in 2004, which makes cannabis offenses among adults who aren’t dealing the drug the lowest enforcement priority for the Oakland police. Officials from the city have also lobbied for legalization on the state and national level. “We are a city that has openly taken a position on cannabis legalization and given ourselves a leeway to fight for it,” says Seiter.
The crown jewel of the exhibition is the actual cannabis sativa plants that are on display. “We have a glove box with clippings of the plant inside. You can reach in and play with the leaves and look at the buds the way you would handle biohazard material,” says Seiter.
In addition, the “Cannabis Science” section includes a dispenser system that lets you smell different strains of marijuana. To catch the smell of burnt weed, visitors can just step outside of the museum and walk around the streets of Oakland.