On September 9, cocktails were being served outside the exhibition hallway at the Oakland Museum of California, while inside “Altered State: Marijuana in California,” the museum held the last of its five “Ask an Expert” talks. This one was hosted by Dr. Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, answering questions on the subject of marijuana. Kilmer’s research includes estimating the size of illegal drug markets and assessing the consequences of alternative marijuana policies, and co-authoring the book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.
The talks are part of “Altered State,” and were created to add an interactive section to the exhibit and introduce new information to the conversation about marijuana on topics that perhaps the exhibition itself didn’t answer. Experts varied in specialty from cannabis law to health, economics and politics.
Other parts of the exhibition included scientific research on marijuana, displays of different strands of cannabis plants, political documents and art showcased on a visual timeline, multimedia displays, and a short documentary produced in-house called “Sacred Ganja.” The exhibition has been running since April 16 and will close September 25.
At 6:30 p.m. on the dot, suddenly the chatter was interrupted and the room became silent. The museum staff gave a warm welcome to Kilmer, and called out to the audience to sit on chairs in front of his desk, which was placed in the middle of the exhibition, to get their cannabis-related questions answered. People gathered around his desk and signed the clipboard for their turn for a five-minute conversation.
In November, voters will make a decision on California’s Proposition 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, also known to supporters as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. If the initiative is passed, the recreational use of marijuana and hemp will become legal in the state. Marijuana will also be subject to a 15 percent sales tax as well as a cultivation tax of $9.25 per ounce for flowers and $2.75 per ounce for leaves, with exceptions for qualifying medical marijuana sales and cultivation.
Currently, in California marijuana use is legal only for medical purposes and buyers must have a Medical Marijuana Identification Card (MMIC). This program, which was initiated by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), allows them to keep a database for verifying qualified patients and their primary caregivers. According to the CDPH, the web-based registry allows law enforcement and the public to verify the validity of a qualified patient or primary caregiver’s card as authorization to possess, grow, transport, or use medical marijuana.
In 1913, California was the first state to outlaw marijuana. In 1996, voters passed Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act, allowing the use of medical cannabis, despite the fact that marijuana usage continues to be illegal under federal law. Marijuana remains prohibited by the Controlled Substances Act, and the Food and Drug Administration states that marijuana does not have condoned medical uses.
Recreational use of marijuana remains illegal in California. According to California NORML, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to reforming California’s marijuana laws, as of January 1, 2011, possession of one ounce (28.5 grams) or less of marijuana is an infraction, punishable by a maximum $100 fine for a person with no criminal record. With added fees, the cost can be as high as $485.
“Last year there were 15,000 people arrested for marijuana offenses, including possession, cultivation, distribution, etc,” Kilmer said. “These 15,ooo received a misdemeanor or felony infractions. In California, if you get caught with less than an ounce, it’s a $100 fine.”
When asked about how Proposition 64 was doing with voters, Kilmer said, “Seems it’s going to pass, but you still have a couple of months and the anti-side, I expect, they’re going to try to do everything they can to stop California from legalizing. So if you think you’re hearing a lot about this now, just wait.”
Kilmer holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard University and has dedicated most of his life to his expertise in drug policy. One of his first professional ventures into the subject was his summer internship junior year of college at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, where he has spent his whole career.
“I was really interested in drug policy because it’s interesting in itself, but also it intersects with all of the social issues I care about,” said Kilmer. “Our goal at RAND is try to help inform the conversation and conduct the research that needs to be done. As a drug policy researcher, it’s a very exciting time.”
With all the changes surrounding the use of marijuana, the museum staffers feel a responsibility to educate the community on the topic, despite even negative reactions, said lead curator Sarah Seiter.
“We have gotten all the reactions across the spectrum,” said Seiter. “On the liking side, there’s people that just want to get informed on the issue and people that just want to have a place to have a conversation. So we’re pretty happy to be able to meet that need.”
For example, she said, on the exhibit’s opening night, two nuns who were part of the exhibit’s documentary, “Sacred Ganja,” walked around the room with a basket, handing out cannabidiol (CBD) based products to visitors. CBD products are extracted and processed from marijuana plants and are used for medical marijuana patients. Typically, you can find these products in the form of oils.
“They were sweet nuns,” is how Seiter remembers them, “but we had to ask them to stop handing out their gifts, since even though CBD is non-psychoactive, it’s still considered illegal.”
According to Seiter, although mostly the exhibition was received with excitement and curiosity, not all reactions were positive. “Now, people who really didn’t like it, they are people who are a little bit more conservative and prefer not to see marijuana get an exhibition treatment. There’s also people in the industry that think we didn’t go far enough,” she said. “The museum doesn’t take a position on marijuana legalization.”
But the talk continues. The Oakland Museum of California will be having a last lecture on Friday, September 16 at 7-7:30 p.m. before ending the exhibition the following week. The pop-up talk will be given by Oakland-based attorney Robert Raich, touching on subjects like medical cannabis law and the history of regulation, specifically in Oakland.
Correction: This article was updated on September 16 to accurately reflect a quote from Beau Kilmer.