.Old-School Advocates Preserve California Cannabis History

The movement to legalize cannabis began in earnest in the ’60s and ’70s, and California was at the epicenter of it all the way up until the passage of Prop. 64, which legalized weed for adult use. The fight continues, of course, because pot is still illegal at the federal level, and there are lots of other inequities that still need to be addressed.

Some of the same Californians who worked for decades on legalization are working on those issues today. You might not know it, though, because in the seven-plus years since Prop. 64 passed, the image of California cannabis has radically changed, not necessarily in good ways, and a lot of the history has been forgotten.

When people think of California cannabis these days, they often think of the wide array of gummies and vapes displayed behind glass at their local dispensary, which might look a lot like an Apple Store or an upscale haberdashery. Or when they think of people associated with pot in California, they might think of mercenary VC bros or “entrepreneurs” like Adam Bierman, the founder of MedMen whose greed, profligacy, and narcissism ultimately destroyed his own company and did grave harm to the legal industry.

And they might have never even heard of Michael and Michelle Aldrich, who have been there from the beginning. The couple are “the O-est of OGs” in the California weed scene, says Amanda Reiman, whose own history in California cannabis extends back to well before legalization.

The Aldriches and Reiman, along with several others, decided that something needed to be done to address this widespread ignorance of history, especially among those working in the legal industry today who, Reiman says, often “have no sense of where it all came from.” So the group created the California Cannabis Historical Society. For now, the society is almost nothing—just a website with basic info and a few old snapshots. It doesn’t yet have any funding or any set plans, but Reiman says the aim is to create a physical space, probably somewhere in the Bay Area, produce traveling exhibitions, and fill the Web site with artifacts depicting the earliest days of California pot culture and the fight for legalization.

Michael Aldrich got involved in legalization activism in the mid-’60s, when he founded the first campus chapter of Lemar (Legalize Marijuana). Like many reform activists, he started on the East Coast, but quickly made his way to California, where the potential for real reform seemed greater (and, not coincidentally, the weed was so much better), founding the California Marijuana Initiative in 1972, serving in the board of the state’s NORML chapter, fighting for medical pot, running dispensaries, writing, lecturing, and doing too many other things to list here.

Michelle Aldrich’s history is similarly rich. She co-founded the San Antonio Free Clinic and the National Free Clinic Council, conducted research for the U.S. Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, and served as the vice president of the ACLU’s San Francisco chapter of the ACLU and on the the boards of California NORML and the Drug Abuse Advisory Board for the City and County of San Francisco, She was a member of the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Task Force and the San Francisco Legalization Task Force. Perhaps most notably, she co-authored Prop. 215, which legalized medical pot in 1996.

The Aldriches, along with people dotted across the state, have a vast store of photos, documents, and other artifacts of historical import. But it’s all in storage, and the worry now is that the elements will get to them.That’s why Reiman says the first priority for the society is to find a climate-controlled space.

Perhaps the key thing to remember about the fight for legalization, and California’s central place in it, is that it had nothing to do with creating an “industry,” or making people rich. “People think everything started in 1996,” Reiman says, and they tend to forget— and maybe even never knew—that the movement started in order “to keep people from going to jail and having their lives ruined.”


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