Walking through the history of cannabis prohibition at the Museum of Weed
A few weeks ago, Weedmaps announced that it was putting together a Museum of Weed pop-up in Los Angeles. Pop-ups are pretty common out on the West Coast -- initially, they were limited-time stores for brands to sell off inventory or test the waters with a retail space, but over the years, they've become more promotional. Artists will sometimes rent spaces for installations or galleries, or at events like Comic-Con, brands and companies will rent out spaces to set up an immersive area to walk through -- sort of like a carnival space to promote a TV show like The Walking Dead or Westworld.
The Museum of Weed is a sort of mix of all of those things -- Weedmaps has paid to rent out a warehouse-like event space in Los Angeles, and they've teamed up with Vice Media (and an agency called Virtue, which is Vice's event arm) to fill it up with attractions. There’s a cafe and a gift shop, and most importantly, the “museum” itself, which is a walkthrough exhibit showing off art, information and artifacts about the history of cannabis, specifically focusing on prohibition in the US, how people have been fighting prohibition through the years, and then a series of displays about the science of cannabis and why we experience it the way we do.
If that sounds like a lot under one roof, you’re right — it is. The Elegant Stoner took a trip to Los Angeles last week, and on August 3, the first day the exhibition was open, we paid the $35 ticket fee and took a walk through the museum.
The exhibit is split up into eight different sections, each involving an aspect of cannabis or its history. The "Pre-Prohibition" section has some historical information about cannabis, along with some art and artifacts, like a papyrus mentioning the drug, some samurai armor made of hemp, and some original medicinal cannabis bottles from the early 1900s.
The "Age of Madness" section is next, and it's more surreal, with a lobby space filled with anti-marijuana art and music. There's also a screen playing a clip from Reefer Madness, and there are posters and pictures showing off the emotional and often racist and sexist arguments against legal cannabis. Prohibition of cannabis, as the exhibit shows off, was often driven by a group in power trying to suppress another, whether it was white people trying to stop other cultures or industrialists trying to stop hemp farmers (which, not surprisingly, were also poor immigrants).
The third section shows off the "Counterculture Revolution," in which, during the late 1950s and 1960s, "a generation of youth who shared a deep distrust of government," according to the exhibit, created "a true revolution of thought that spanned a wide range of issues. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, feminism, the sexual revolution - no matter the cause, they all incited radical change in America, and in doing so brought cannabis to center stage."
Now, you might suggest it's a little ambitious to connect all of those causes directly to cannabis, and you're probably not wrong. While cannabis certainly does have ties to all of those cultural movements, the argument puts the cart before the horse to some extent -- it's like saying Coke is responsible for polar bears. But it's also true that cannabis was there -- the museum has pictures of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and posters of Woodstock, along with a nice display recognizing the tough advocacy work of the Yippie movement, NORML, and LEMAR (the first organization in the US dedicated to LEgalizing MARijuana). The legalization movement can't claim to have solved civil rights or gender issues, but it can claim a hard-fought battle to take power from the rich and privileged and return it back to the people, certainly.
And the battle really begins, then, with the next section: Behind Closed Doors. This section covers the United States' costly and ineffective War on Drugs, from Nixon's Operation Intercept and the Controlled Substances Act, to the "Just Say No" and D.A.R.E. propaganda of the Regan administration. The next section, Entrapment, shows the consequences of those actions, with infographics showing how many millions of people were arrested per year in America, and how those arrests disproportionately affected people of minority races.
Right after that section, there's an interlude of sorts. The next section is called "Dose of Compassion," and the first room is a recreation of a bedroom of a cannabis user from the 1990s who wasn't running from the police, showing that while black and latino men were being locked up left and right, cannabis was also finding its way into suburban pop culture. The bedroom recreation has everything you might find in a '90s teen's room, right down to the neon bongs, Half Baked and Dazed and Confused posters, and even a Cypress Hill CD (and a stereo boombox to play it with). If you were around in that era, the nostalgia in the recreation is powerful, but it's also tinged with regret. While whole generations of families were being incarcerated in the War on Drugs, teenagers in the suburbs were playing hackey-sack and reading High Times.
The bedroom exits into a recreation of a hotel room, where a series of documents point out how while the US was fighting the war against controlled substances, it was also realizing that there was medicinal purpose to marijuana. HIV and AIDS was emerging as an epidemic, and the political movement to legalize cannabis found another connection to civil rights in the LGBT movement. The hospital area (right next to a few segments from the AIDS quilt, which has now raised funding and awareness about the epidemic for decades, opens up into a full recreation of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club, where Dennis Peron set up a clinic to provide AIDS patients with medicinal cannabis.
Inside, in a recreation of the lobby where patients would wait to get medicine, there are displays about some of the most notable members of the cannabis movement, like Lynne Barnes, Mary Jane Rathbun, and Beth Moore. The Cannabis Buyers' Club recreation is probably the most interesting part of the whole exhibit -- it was very cool to see how similar the club was to the modern dispensary experience, and how the current trends in legalization are still closely tied to the actions and examples of these heroic people who were just trying their hardest to deliver medicine to their suffering friends.
The last section covers the current legalization movement -- there's a big infographic showing popular support for legalization, and there's a Microsoft Kinect-powered motion-controlled timeline, where you can browse through small text snippets about where the movement has come over the past ten years (with different states passing medicinal and recreational laws, Canada legalizing recreationally, the US legalizing hemp, and the current push to decriminalize and eventually legalize on the federal level).
The final area is a display called The Plant Lab, with a series of exhibits that break down the biology of cannabis, the various types and uses (from hemp to THC and CBD and even a display of different products), and how and why it affects our brains the way it does. Some of this area can be hokey (there's essentially just a product showcase in one corner, and in another, you can put different-shaped objects in different slots to get "a visual representation" of cannabis' effect, whatever that is), but there's also some interesting science, like descriptions and examples of some of the most popular terpenes, and an area showing the differences between certain strains.
After that, it's back out to the lobby, where a gift shop is selling rolling tray and tshirts at influencer-targeted prices (too expensive, in other words), and a cafe with trendy treats like pretzel bao, avocado crisps or "munchie classics" like Funyuns and Skittles.
That cafe, more than anything else in the building, probably best describes this installation: it's a place that sells both a house-cured bacon sandwich with black sesame butter and banana mustard... and also a pack of Chex Mix. There's a notable absence of any actual cannabis sales on the property, but then again, the whole building is essentially an ad for cannabis. Even though, yes, there's a whole lot of history and facts involved, and the hard work of the people featured is very impressive (and the suffering of those honored is definitely very real), this is basically an advertisement at its core, with the unspoken final line being that now that you know all about cannabis and how hard it was to get it to you, you can now go buy it right down the street. (Weedmaps itself shows four different delivery services in the area around the museum.)
"This is something Weedmaps has been wanting to do for a while," we were told by Madeline Donegan, who is the executive director of the Museum project for Weedmaps, and granted a quick interview after our tour. The goal, she says, is education. "I think there's been a gap of this type of education in the cannabis space, and with over half of the nation now having some type of medical or recreational marijuana program, we felt like this was the right time to build something of this magnitude so that we could educate people."
She says Weedmaps didn't want to go through the licensing program to sell cannabis onsite, and leaving actual sales out also allowed the museum to keep the age requirement to 18 rather than 21. "The goal here for us is to give open access to everybody," she says. "We think that prohibition has had a really negative effect on a lot of communities within our society. This whole experience intended to really educate people and hopefully shift some perspectives."
It's true that the museum is very persuasive -- even if you're not interested in using cannabis (or, if you're under 21, can't legally in California yet anyway), going through the museum will probably tell you a whole lot about the drug, and the Plant Lab especially seems to promise a really good time, if nothing else (the Museum wisely doesn't make any medicinal claims, considering the current research, though there is a medicinal clinic recreated, and the Plant Lab talks a lot about certain terpenes and cannabinoids can bring certain feelings or reactions).
On the other hand, this is a solid walk through the history of cannabis, and while again, the Museum might give cannabis a bit too much credit for cultural movements, the evidence is also there for the facts, both in the form of information and in actual artifacts.
Is the Museum worth your $35 for a walkthrough that will take about an hour? If you're familiar with the history of cannabis already (or just want to follow the links from this post), probably not -- at times, it feels like a carnival ride of a Wikipedia page, and the actual Wikipedia pages probably have more information in them. It's also a building made for cannabis influencers and Instagrammers -- don't worry; we went so you won't have to.
But on the other hand, it is an interesting statement. At worst, this is a corporate takeover of an anti-corporate movement. The people that the Museum holds in such esteem weren't just fighting against an oppressive government -- they were also fighting against the drug companies and insurance companies and banks that refused to support their friends. Weedmaps isn't one of those businesses, but it is a business, and it runs a risk here of co-opting actual grassroots movements for its own corporate gain.
That's a cynical point of view, though (and it's also hard to say what would have happened if Weedmaps had put itself at risk and tried to sell the drug on site -- maybe nothing, or maybe another notable moment in their timeline). At its best, the Museum does finally champion a lot of people who could use more championing, and it takes some of the money from the investment frenzy currently happening around marijuana and puts it back into the cultural education and activism that helped us get where we are in the first place. While it is a bit crass to charge $35 a head to influencers (or in this case, we’ll admit, underfunded bloggers), it's definitely a welcome gesture to keep telling these stories no matter how hip the venue, and keeping educating the public so that we can hopefully avoid more prejudice and injustice in the future.
Donegan told us that Weedmaps' only set plans so far are to keep the exhibit running through September 29 in Los Angeles, but she didn't rule out it traveling to another location, perhaps. The company is considering a few "markets that would benefit from having an activation or museum like this there. Right now," however, "we're focused on LA, and making this one successful." If you want to tour the museum yourself, you can grab tickets online right now. There are also VIP tickets available for $200, which include a curated gift bag and some hors d’oeuvres while you walk around the exhibit.
We didn’t end up eating anything at the museum’s cafe. Instead, we went down the street to have a few bites at the nearby Sugar Taco, another company doing its best to save the world (and also make a buck, we'd imagine). Sometimes, when you don't have an easy way to make a direct change, or when a problem is too big to just handle by yourself, maybe you have to depend on corporations to do what they can as well. It's an awkward partnership, advertising and activism, but hopefully in this instance, it’ll work out all right.