Year after year, cannabis enters the visibility of more and more state legislatures, often coming to a public vote. In 2016, more states in than in any other year passed medical or recreational marijuana laws, and the recent surge of unabashed acceptance of cannabis legalization has found itself leveraged socially across the country as a tax revenue and job creation machine. We all know, however, marijuana use always has history deeper than the laws we have recently built around its use. The Seattle Times has been reporting about cannabis for 115 years, the medical market has been legal since the late 1990s, and recreational is reaching its third full year of operational sales.
The history of cannabis in Seattle is so very full of energy, jeering hazy-eyed within their legal right (but also less so). It spans the times before cannabis was called marijuana; before it was considered harmful; before it was illegal; before it was a felony; to the moments of medical recognition in the western world. A cultural movement has been defined under the multifaceted use of a “weed”. From a rope to cloth to food, oil, and medicine or, more recently, as a legal (LEGAL!!!!!) adult recreational substance. Overall, it can be safely assessed cannabis use is increasingly becoming less taboo.
Common Themes Across the Country
The history of weed in Seattle follows much of the same narrative as cities elsewhere in the USA. Across the country, the spread of negative ideas about cannabis came in the years following the first world war, wherein immigration from Mexico to the US rose for the first time. What could have (definitely) been seen as a racially motivated issue, the eventual blending of certain cultural elements from Mexican and American lifestyles turned into a political tool for separating the dominant culture’s views on subversive or provocative behavior, including those differences in behavior observed when people smoked marijuana.
This created a sort of legal vacuum for cannabis, wherein it ended up being lumped into the same category as substances as harmful as heroin or PCP. Ultimately, cannabis use became entangled with all the same poor or socially perverse behavior seen in any other depraved addict.
The passage of the marijuana tax act in 1937 sent a shock through the hemp industry, which was living out its final days of legal agricultural production for over half a century. The Marihuana Tax Act asked individuals to pay taxes on an illegal product, thereby self-incriminating their own behavior. If caught with marijuana but there is no evidence you paid taxes, individuals could be additionally charged with tax evasion. This law was repealed by congress in the 1960s, and, though it was likely unrelated, the hippy renaissance was becoming an integral part of the western US culture – in larger cities particularly.
When Opinion Began to Change
In the 1970s, medical opinion began to extend to the possibility cannabis has valid, nontoxic and non-psychoactive effects. Though a lack of access to funding or legal study, however, the effects of cannabis were entirely generally understood as being created by THC only. The last three decades or so scientists have identified over 400 different compounds specific to cannabis, over 80 of them cannabinoids each with a variety of effects — both psychoactive and non-psychoactive.
Through both medical and recreational channels as well as the larger spread of information the internet enables, this information has only begun to reach the wider population. In part due to skepticism or potential legal and professional complications, the spread of good, accurate, and scientifically researched information in the 1970s through the 1990s was not done through traditional media channels such as television, radio, or print. During the same period, however, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — an independent research body formed under President Lincoln — recognized immediately the potential for public interest in the medical effects of cannabis.
As such, in 1982 the National Academies released the first of many publications on marijuana, its effects, and how much we don’t know. Titled “Marijuana and Health“, the compilation of studies and analysis of evidence would lay the foundation on which the medical marijuana industry would over the next twenty years expand to over a third of the US. In 2017, more than 60% have adopted some form of medical marijuana law.
Seattle’s Pot Laws Meet Seattle’s Pot Culture
By the time medical marijuana was passed in Washington State, Seattle’s cannabis history was already visibly present in city celebrations. The Seattle Hempfest, for instance, began in 1991, seven years prior to the vote allowing marijuana for persons with certain illnesses. By the time medical marijuana was passed, the festival was attracting thousands of attendees annually. Today, the three-day festival attracts over one-hundred-thousand guests each year.
This, if nothing else, gives a rough representation of Seattle’s history in cannabis by showing the regional (and largely local) support for the complex plant. Unsurprisingly, the recreational market has breathed an entirely new life into the once entirely illicit market. This has driven a good deal of interest into how public health is assessed, researched, and safely addressed regarding cannabis. The evolving nature of information in a market with large, built-in demand and a challenge of navigating a business on legal eggshells, where the cannabis industry exclusively fits, has allowed Seattle to do one of the things the local culture is best known for: caring for each other.
The taxes on retail marijuana in the state are over 1/3rd of the sale price. After they are collected, however, millions of dollars annually go to research, education, public health programs, drug treatment centers, and a variety of other pro-public health, knowledge, and assistance programs. This affects countless lives, some of which may have not even have been affected by cannabis in any way – and that is the point. It funds a public good by providing some public good.
To some, this may seem like a sin tax, levied because people value intoxication more than public health, yet – and the sales revenues reflect this – the tax rate hardly discourages sales. Being able to personally know you are in some way contributing to healthful programs for your state, city, and the local community seems to be indicative of a caring place. After all, ensuring important social programs exist and relevant information gets conveyed to those who may be negatively impacted otherwise is the natural, neighborly form of altruism the world can likely do better with more of.
And now, the history of cannabis in Seattle, due to the further legal integration of the industry across the state, has become inseparable from the future of cannabis in Seattle. Public health and education, now and in the future, will some degree depend on it.