The History of Cannabis in San Francisco

history of san francisco cannabis

For many, California is weed and weed is California. The metaphor doesn’t seem too far off; Cannabis culture–everything from good-time vibes to vagabond living to herbal remedies–goes hand-in-hand with San Francisco like nothing else. The Bay Area city is ripe with a history that is riddled with marijuana benchmarks. The hippie counterculture? Check.

The first-ever dispensary in the United States? Check.

Between historic events and moments and eras, San Francisco and cannabis have grown together through the years.


“The Poison Act” came about in 1907 and essential made cannabis and all hemp products illegal in California. Fun fact: rumor has it that this legislation was not supposed to affect, limit, or restrict medical cannabis in any way–the language of the bill was a mistake.


Criminalization of weed continued in 1925, as possession grew into a real crime, punishable by up to six years in jail. By 1937, possession (combined with prior felonies) could land someone into prison for a life sentence. Suddenly, lighting up didn’t seem like such a good idea for folks.


Ron and Jay Thelin’s Psychedelic shop opened in 1966, serving as the first-ever head shop in the United States. This pre-dispensary was a safe place for people to come and buy weed free of judgement, right in San Francisco’s Ashbury (Hashbury, if you’re into punny nicknames) neighborhood.

From here, San Francisco became a welcome spot in cannabis culture. It became home to the hippie counterculture, with ties in free love and freer spirits–usually via ganja.


Proposition 19 was, well, proposed–attempting to decriminalize marijuana. It failed by a whopping 66.5% majority, and San Franciscans everywhere mourned as their state continued to frame cannabis as an illegal substance.


Marijuana was decriminalized in California via the Moscone Act (Bill 95), rectifying the fears of weed lovers both in San Francisco and all over the state. The $100 fine was preferable to a felony sentence.


A volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital named Mary Rathbun worked in the US’s first AIDS-dedicated ward. She helped medical consumers by baking and handing out thousands of cannabis-infused brownies, and became known as Brownie Mary. She continued lobbying for medical marijuana legislature, and contributed vastly to the cannabis movement both in San Francisco and California.


The San Francisco Buyers Club opened its doors in 1992, making it the first public marijuana dispensary in the United States. It was started by Brownie Mary herself, in addition to Dennis Peron, John Entwhistle, Dale Gieringer, Beth Moore, Jason Patrick Menard, Gerry Leatherman, and Tod Mikuriya, at 194 Church Street. The Buyers Club became a symbol for marijuana reform in California.


A medical marijuana program was set in place by voters in 1996, making it possible for Californians to use or grow mmj for specific ailment–including migraines, chronic illness, cancer, AIDS, arthritis, anorexia, glaucoma, and spasticity–as long as they had a doctor’s permission. Doctors, too, could not get in trouble for making cannabis recommendations for their medical consumers.

This milestone was historic in the nation as well–California was the first state to create and facilitate a medical marijuana program. Through their Compassionate Care Act, the state gave new hope to marijuana-lovers everywhere.


A medical marijuana identification card system was set up throughout California, paving the way for regulation and, thus, normalization. San Francisco saw the rise of non-profit dispensaries, operating under the term “collectives,” to make cannabis more accessible to potential consumers.


“I” be back,” decriminalization said, before coming back into the California public sphere once again in 2010. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law turning marijuana possession into an “infraction” status–more akin to a traffic ticket–rather than a misdemeanor.

During the same year, however, voters decided against Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana for anyone over the age of 21.


In another historic victory, San Franciscans celebrated the legalization of recreational marijuana in their state, joining the ranks of Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, Maine, Alaska, and Nevada. Anyone over 21 will soon be able to smoke, ingest, possess, transport, buy, give away, and grow cannabis in the Bay Are–the Golden Gate will be a symbol of victory for years to come.

Though adult use weed was passed in 2016, licenses–for dispensaries to grow and sell–will not be issued until 2018. Until then, medical marijuana cards are still necessary for medical consumers to access marijuana in California.

Cannabis has a turbulent history all over the nation, as many states are still trying to sort their way through the legislative battles of decriminalization and legalization, plus a tension between state and federal laws. In San Francisco, however, there has always been solace. Medical marijuana cardholders, cannabis activists, and now recreational lovers have faced triumph in the Bay Area, as they’ve walked away from numerous marijuana battles, setting the stage for national victories.