The future has arrived, ladies and gentlemen – you can walk into any of Seattle’s dispensaries and be presented with a dazzling array of cannabis products and leave with exactly what your mind and body desires.
But marijuana hasn’t always been this accessible. The history of cannabis runs deep, much deeper than you may realize.
Seattle dispensaries: where are we now?
It’s the 21st century. You don’t even need to leave the comfort of your pajamas. A few taps on a phone screen, and you can have any number of cannabis products delivered directly to your door. Pre-rolled joints, THC infused pretzels, ridiculously potent concentrates, strawberry-flavored cannabis vape liquid, or any one of hundreds of strains of flower can be posted through your letterbox – you don’t even have to interact with another human being (perfect for those who smoke themselves into an introverted haze).
Back in my day (I’m only 35, which shows how quickly times have changed), buying cannabis was a lottery. First and foremost – you were very much on the wrong side of the law.
For those who enjoyed smoking a joint in the safety of their own property on Friday and Saturday night, it defied belief that possessing even a few grams of this stick green plant could land you in jail.
Secondly, the quality, strength, and strain of the cannabis you were smoking was entirely up to the gods of chance. Unless you were growing it yourself, everything about the weed you were smoking was outside of your control – you had zero choice.
Nowadays, these whippersnappers don’t know how lucky they have it.
Dispensaries are popping up on every corner selling professionally-grown, scientifically-developed, organically-produced cannabis.
You want something mild and fruity? No problem.
After something to knock your head clean from your shoulders? They have it covered.
You don’t want the high but need the therapeutic relief of CBD? Sure thing.
Cannabis has come a long, long way. What was once lining the pockets of cartels and gangs is now funding schools, hospitals, and infrastructure through the money it raises in tax revenue.
But how did we get here? And why was this plant, which has been cultivated by humans for at least three millennia, even criminalized in the first place?
Back where it all began
This is a story about the history of Seattle dispensaries, but the true story of cannabis stretches back to ancient China. Even before the birth of Christ, Chinese farmers were cross-breeding and cultivating hemp (a close relative of the cannabis plant we all know and love.)
Back then, they were growing the plant for its fiber – turning it into building materials, clothes, rope, and many other essential items.
But that’s not all.
Chinese medical texts dating back to 200BC remark upon the healing properties of the plant. They talked of crushing the leaves and flower of cannabis down to an oil and using it to treat inflammation and pain. There are even remarks upon the psychotropic effects of the herb. One text reads that it “frees the spirit light and lightens the body.”
Fast forward to pre-revolutionary America, and the cultivation of hemp for textiles and many other uses was still a staple for farmers. It had even become key to the survival of the British Empire. The growing British Navy created a massive demand for hemp rope and insisted that colonists keep up their supply of the plant.
Thomas Jefferson even got in on the act – inventing a device that speeded up hemp processing in 1815.
So what changed? How did hemp go from a plant essential to the survival of the largest empire in the world to a controlled substance?
Fashion trends go in cycles and so, it appears, does political rhetoric.
In the early part of the 20th century, two things shaped the modern history of pot in America. Firstly, prohibition was rife. Secondly, the Mexican Revolution was in full swing, driving hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants over the US border.
Much like the recent administration, the government of the day struggled to deal with this influx of people adding to the strain of the economy, infrastructure, and employment. Thus followed a campaign to demonize the Mexican people, one part of which was associating Mexicans with cannabis and exaggerating (and frankly entirely fabricate) the negative effects of marijuana.
Crazy headlines and reports emerged of cannabis turning Mexicans into bloodthirsty killers. Washington State passed a law in 1923 that categorized cannabis as a narcotic drug, and Congress banned the plant nationwide with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
The dark ages of cannabis
A long and barren period of cannabis had begun. A plant that had been growing naturally on the planet for untold millennia had been lumped in the same category as cocaine, speed, heroin, and other hard, highly addictive substances.
For a long while, not much changed. Cannabis was seen as a demon drug that could turn children into hardened criminals, and possession of even a small amount could cost you up to 10 years in jail.
But as any keen marketer or advertiser will tell you, you can’t create or diminish the demand for a product. Whether it is illegal or not – the desire to smoke cannabis still existed within large parts of the American population.
As the old stories and propaganda died down, cannabis became increasingly popular – especially within the hippy, counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s.
In 1971 things began to change – at least in Washington State. Cannabis activists and pressure groups had already started to lobby the government into rethinking their stance on cannabis, and the State legislature passed the first relaxation of the cannabis laws.
Possession of 40 grams or less was downgraded to a misdemeanor and cannabis was no longer classified as a narcotic or opiate.
But things weren’t so simple. There was opposition to the change – federal and state law still saw cannabis as a controlled substance. Cannabis was by no means legal – but a glimmer of light began to draw the dark days to an end.
At the end of the 1970s, medical marijuana stepped on the scene.
Recreational users of today owe a lot of thanks to the medical marijuana movement. If it were not for the early researchers and pioneers who recognized the therapeutic and health benefits of cannabis, the road to recreational use would have been a lot longer – if it had happened at all.
In 1979, a landmark case came to the Washington Court of Appeal and produced a verdict that would shape the state’s legislation on cannabis for years to come.
In the early morning of January 18, 1977, police were called to the scene of a reported domestic disturbance. A man, Samuel Diana, was arrested, and the authorities seized his supply of cannabis.
Now, let’s look past the fact that the case had zero legs because the police entered his property unlawfully, to the answer he gave when asked to explain why he had marijuana.
He told the court that he suffered from multiple sclerosis and cannabis was his medicine:
“Well, I believe in marijuana. I believe it is a primary sedative for frustrations attached to MS. It helps me sometimes. I find with MS it is hard to eat. It helps me eat. I have been conducting several experiments for years and years. I am not really what you could call a doctor, and probably shouldn’t have been experimenting, but needless to say, I got 75 percent of what it takes to conduct such experiments. Like I have MS which I was working on, and it helps me. It helps me sedate my nerves.
It helps me eat. It poses no problem to my equilibrium.
It helps me sleep when I have trouble sleeping. It has been used in so many other medical cases with wide acceptance, that I thought it is something that should be ventured into with MS.”
This compelling statement from a person clearly suffering was enough to prompt the court to look at the evidence from other states and it ruled that the defense of possessing marijuana to treat MS was acceptable. This is democracy, manifest.
This early ruling paved the way for other patients in Washington to treat their conditions with cannabis – but it was still illegal for them to buy and grow the drug. But as we explored earlier, the legality will doesn’t always affect demand.
In stepped cannabis clubs. It is unknown when the first citizen-run initiatives began supplying needy Seattle patients with medical cannabis, but by the 90’s it was a well-known phenomenon. These early dispensaries operated in direct opposition to the law of the day, but most enforcement agencies didn’t know they existed – or simply chose to turn a blind eye.
This makeshift agreement terminated in 1990, when police raided the Green Cross Patient Co-op in Bainsbridge Island, Washington – the first documented raid of its kind in the country. The co-operative provided medical cannabis to sufferers of MS, AIDS, chemotherapy side-effects, and many more conditions.
Again, the case was thrown out because the police had used an invalid search warrant (can these guys do anything right?), but the whole saga proved to be a catalyst in the quest for easier access to medical marijuana.
A Tacoma attorney, who had been using cannabis supplied by the Green Gross Co-op to ease the side effects of his treatment for bone cancer, sued Washington State for limiting his access to treatment. He wanted to make it possible for doctors to prescribe their patients cannabis.
The Washington Supreme Court eventually quashed the case, but it was too late; the ball was already rolling.
While those with the know-how and the power fought the good fight in the courthouses and legislative buildings of Washington, the movement on streets and in the minds of Seattle’s citizens gained pace.
The zenith of this movement was Hempfest, an annual ‘protestival’ (I hate myself for having typed that word) that brought together cannabis users, advocates, and activists in the heart of Seattle.
Founded in 1991, the first event saw a modest crowd of 500 people (described by themselves as a “humble gathering of stoners”). The idea that ‘they can’t arrest us all’ seemed to have grown, and at its peak Hempfest drew crowds of over 300,000
The festival – a celebration of all things good about the cannabis plant – brought together people from all corners of the fight to decriminalize marijuana and served as a melting pot of ideas, protest groups, politicians, and lawyers, which helped galvanize the movement to bring about real change.
Meanwhile, the legal battle ebbed back and forth. Initiatives were written, failed, rewritten, and failed again, with each attempt making slight gains towards the end goal.
In 1997, activists put an ambitious bill forward to allow doctors to prescribe their patients any controlled substance (if its use was supported by scientific consensus) and parole those currently incarcerated for cannabis possession. It failed, but a trimmed-down version of the same initiative was brought forward the following year that focused solely on the decriminalization of marijuana. It was approved by a margin of 59.0% to 41.0%.
The glory days arrive
Finally, those turning to cannabis to alleviate their suffering were handed a lifeline, and doctors could prescribe cannabis for a growing number of conditions. Patients were allowed to possess 64 ounces (enough to sedate a grown elephant for about a year), but dispensaries were still outside of the law.
As we’ve repeatedly seen, the law isn’t enough to stop those with fire in their belly, and by 2011 seventy-five dispensaries were openly trading in Seattle. The legal battle continued – some legislators wanted to make the production and supply of cannabis official and regulated, but others feared they would be putting their citizens at risk of federal prosecution.
Seattle dispensaries were ordered to shut down (and naturally refused), and many were raided and forced to close by federal law enforcement agencies. By this time, Seattle police had already been ordered to treat cannabis possession as the lowest law enforcement priority.
On November 6, 2012, supported by the Seattle mayor, Washington State Democratic Party, many local newspapers and businesses, and the sheriff of King County, initiative 502 was approved by a vote of 55.7% – allowing adults to possess 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use. The Washington liquor authorities drew together guidelines and regulations for the cannabis industry, and the Seattle dispensary was born.
The journey of cannabis is long and winding – from traditional Chinese medicine to a tool used to demonize immigrants, to a plant that gives much-needed relief from some of the most brutal medical conditions imaginable.
Nowadays, buying cannabis is as easy as ordering a pizza, maybe even easier (you can’t forget to put extra olives on a gram of hash). The next time you’re about to light a joint of herb you’ve bought from your local Seattle dispensary, take a moment to think of all those who’ve been involved in the fight to make cannabis as accessible and accepted as it is today – and dedicate your smoke to them.