California voters will decide during this November’s election whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana with Proposition 64. Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996 and in the past two decades, the industry around it has grown exponentially. California is one of the largest economies in the world and a prognosticator of social trends within the United States. In the column Will California Go Green?, we are speaking to experts and commentators on the likelihood of Proposition 64 passing and what it could potentially mean for the state and the country.

In April of this year, the Oakland Museum of California opened the exhibition Altered State: Marijuana in California. While taking a neutral stance towards its subject, it is the first major museum exhibit in the United States to explore this world. It runs through September 25. We spoke with Sarah Seiter, the museum’s Associate Curator of Natural Sciences who put Altered State together, in order to give some context on the Californian general public’s current relationship to marijuana.

 

How did the exhibition come to be?

This has been in the works at the Oakland Museum since well before I was a curator here. It’s been the works since I think I was a grad student. I didn’t know that this was a potential exhibit that were considering, and when I went to apply for the job, I actually applied for a more general science position, which is the job that I have. But as part of my application process they asked me to write an exhibit proposal about cannabis legalization in California. I’m a pretty progressive person, but drug reform isn’t one of the issues that I think about all the time. I tend to gravitate more towards environmental issues because my background is in conservation biology. It was an interesting dive into the issue, so when I was offered the job, we went to development pretty early on, maybe in the first six months after I arrived. I’ve been at the museum for just about two years, so it was about an 18 month process.

What did you think were the key ideas or experiences that you wanted museum visitors to have when checking out this exhibition?

We didn’t come into this exhibition with a lot of content goals. Sometimes when you’re developing a science exhibitions, you have this idea that you want people to leave with better information about climate change, or better information about the bird species of Oakland, or something like that. [For Altered State] we took a really different approach. The only learning goal we have is that we want people to understand that there are a lot of competing viewpoints about marijuana in California, and that California is a particularly unique laboratory for marijuana policy. Other than that, what we’re most interested in is letting people have a platform for debate, letting them have a space where they can actively engage in conversations with people whose opinions are different than theirs, and do that in a real earnest and thoughtful way with good information at their fingertips.

When you say that California is a unique situation, what do you mean by that?

California has had this really interesting relationship with marijuana for the last one hundred or so years. We are the first state to make marijuana illegal through a pharmacy reform bill in 1913, and then we were the first state to legalize medical marijuana and one of the first states to make it a misdemeanor instead of a felony. California has been on the vanguard, and Oakland has one of the most unique marijuana policies. It has a bill called Measure Z, and it was passed in 2004. It makes marijuana the lowest priority for policing in the city of Oakland. In theory, if a police officer sees a person littering and a person smoking a joint, they’re supposed to pursue the litterer, which is as close as you can get to legalization without crossing that line. So Oakland in particular and California more generally have always been early adopters of marijuana policies.

Who were some of the people you spoke to and consulted with while developing this exhibition?

We didn’t have super specific content goals, so one thing we did early on is we built a mockup of the exhibition out of tape and paper and cardboard and let our visitors come in and ask questions and interact with the information. Through that we got an idea of what our visitors were interested in learning about and what are some common misconceptions that people have about [marijuana]—one thing that came up again and again was that people go to jail in current day California for smoking a joint, but personal use is decriminalized, so people aren’t currently being hauled off to jail, though that is something that happens in other states and has happened in the past. We learned a lot about what our visitors did and didn’t know, and what they were interested in learning about.

From there we worked with a lot of community partners—we worked with over one hundred organizations and individuals. We tried to make sure there was community input or presence in every section of the exhibition. We had a local youth center contribute material for the Youth and Weed section, we did a short documentary with people who use marijuana in their spiritual lives in our Sacred Ganja section, we had a collaboration with an artist in the Creative Grass section, we worked with a bunch of different policy organizations and city officials for the Criminal Dope section where we get into the specifics about citations and arrests, nationally and locally.

Is the exhibit open to people of all ages?

Yes it is. In our museum the policy is that if you’re under 12, you have to be accompanied by an adult, and we just maintain that policy in the exhibition. We see a lot of families using it as teachable moment, as an opportunity to talk to their kids in a more neutral environment about drugs and decision-making. We had thought about making it 18 and up, but when we were doing the prototyping we saw so many families steer their kids into the exhibition and sit them down and have these big conversations, so we didn’t want to deprive our community of that opportunity if it would be useful to someone.

Have any class trips come through to see it?

There haven’t been any class trips. We have a docent tour that could be adapted for schools upon request, but we don’t have a curriculum built around it the way we sometimes do with other exhibitions. We did that partly because of the timing, because most schools are wrapping up in April, May, and June. That’s part of it, and the Oakland public schools have very specific requirements around drug policy education. It probably wouldn’t meet their standards for main curriculum.

I know the museum maintains a neutrality on the subject, but what have you discovered that people find as the most compelling cases for either pro or against recreational marijuana legalization?

We initially thought we’d have people vote yes or no, and then we weren’t sure if having people vote yes or no would be perceived as non-neutral or biased in some way. What we actually did is we have a deal breaker vote. In our conversations, people would always say, “I would love to see it legalized, but I worry about the youth” or “I worry about the environment.” Or people would be like, “I oppose it, but I certainly don’t want to see racist policing.” So we have a wall where you can vote on, “Would you legalize if there was a negative environmental impact” or “…if students didn’t actually use more marijuana?” That’s where we see a lot of opinions.

The environment, the youth, and public safety are the ones that we hear in terms of concerns about legalization. Often people who oppose marijuana legalization still have a lot of concerns about how marijuana is used in police tactics. People were a little more neutral than we gave them credit for initially.

What is the concern with environmental impact?

There are a couple concerns. Currently there are a lot of trespass grows—so grows on private property or in national parks—and those can be pretty unregulated and they can be pretty detrimental to the environment. And of course adding another industry in water-poor state like California is a big environmental question as well, even if it’s a legal and well-regulated industry. Then there’s the possibility that some people will choose to make an end run around legalization and continue to grow in parks, just because it’s very difficult to catch them, and then they can evade the oversight of the law. There’s a lot of complicated stuff around the environment and I don’t know that it’s clear that legalization will put an end to our environmental problems.

Has the museum gotten any pushback from opposition groups even though you’ve said that this a neutral exhibition?

I’m heartened to see that we’ve gotten complaints from both sides. We’ve definitely heard from more conservative visitors who feel like we’re failing to highlight the negative aspects, but then there are people in the marijuana industry who think that we haven’t gone far enough in endorsing it, particularly its medical benefits. We stuck very strictly to the research available. We didn’t really include a lot of anecdotal evidence, because we think that if people want medical marijuana to be treated as a legitimate medical option, you have to be able to back that up with well-documented, well-conducted research that meets standards comparable to other medications. I think some industry folks were expecting more of an endorsement. Then there are people who don’t think this is a topic for a museum at all.

This is the first major museum exhibitions about marijuana in the United States. Could this have happened even two years ago or is it only because of how things are trending right now that this would even be possible?

It’s a little difficult for me to answer that question because I was still in an academic research position two years ago. I’m still pretty new as a curator and a lot of this exhibition was learning as I went along. But I would say that the climate, even during the time that we built the show, has changed. The legalization bills in Colorado and Washington really changed the national conversation. Certainly within the last two to five years there’s been a pretty big shift in the conversation around legalization. We’re doing this in a more interested environment. And of course the context of California means that this is something that people are going to be asked to vote on in a couple of months. So even if people wouldn’t be interested in learning about marijuana normally, because of the bill we are getting more people who are interested in voter education.

As an observer, not taking a position either way, what do you think is going to happen in November?

I don’t know, honestly. One thing we did in the exhibition is we really tried hard not to make predictions, because it is a really fast-changing world. We actually have a little sticker we can add when new information comes out. It’s really hard to predict, but I guess if I was a betting woman, I would put money on the bill passing, but I’m totally ready to be surprised.