Marijuana's First Museum - April 20, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Marijuana's First Museum

The truest words at “Altered State,” the Oakland Museum of California's new exhibit all about America's favorite illicit drug — and, according to the museum's curators, the first-ever cannabis-centric museum exhibit in America — greet visitors at the very beginning, well before they reach the four large healthy indica plants behind glass or hear Richard Nixon's diabolical mumble rumble through their ears.

“Californians can't seem to agree on cannabis.”

Some might call this a prevarication, but it is nonetheless the strongest stance the exhibit takes.

Other than that, everything presented here is without comment, for your own consideration. Even the Nixon and Reagan era nonsense and propaganda we now know to be untrue.

It's not entirely the museum's fault. The institution is a nonprofit and cannot take a political stance. That means no legalization endorsement, but it also means being “neutral” on medical marijuana, which even right-wing politicians have accepted as the new normal.

Thus, presenting an agnostic weed museum exhibit in Oakland, possibly the weed-friendliest city in America — sorry, Denver; adults could buy pot here without a medical card long before Jan. 1, 2014 — also presents a conundrum.

The museum wanted to give visitors want they wanted, explains Sarah Seiter, the Ph.D. who is the main curator of the exhibit. But not only could the museum not advocate a position, the knowledge base of its likely attendees is all over the place, even in Oakland. This is a place where a museum-goer is just as likely to have never touched the plant since college as they are to work every day in the industry, one of Oakland's bigger economic drivers.

So do you present a lot of intro-level knowledge that could bore or patronize a savvy audience, or do you go deep with knowledge that would befuddle the average citizen? The museum's answer was to try to do both, but with a sharp lean towards the novice.

This is why you see turkey bags (for packing pounds), bongs (does anyone still use a plastic tube? Really, I'm curious) and dab rigs placed under glass, as if they were mysterious relics from a raided tomb, near buds under glass available for you to sniff (and a vending machine dispensing candy and chips, an official part of the exhibit).

“We do assume a certain amount of marijuana savvy… but we think someone who is a complete novice will enjoy it,” says Seiter, who notes she took strong direction from both the museum's board and members of the public with what to present.

This is apparent when you visit the exhibit's ten sections, each of which presents a question, like the ones you'll see printed on the BART ads promoting the exhibit: “Simple Seed — Or Evil Weed?” “Medical Miracle — Or Gateway Drug?”

For example, one of the sections goes deep on arrest statistics — something almost everyone polled wanted.

You learn how cannabis arrests still nab mostly black and brown people — and you are reminded that the scraps left on your fingers after breaking up a few buds are still cause for severe penalties in other parts of the country.

You do get a history lesson. There's a corner dedicated to Dennis Peron's twenty years of political agitating that led to Prop. 215 (though there's no Brownie Mary).

In another corner, images of Clinton and Nixon's infamous sound bites on the devil drug are interspersed with shots of Lila Leeds, the up-and-coming film starlet whose career was wrecked after a 1948 pot bust with actor Robert Mitchum (his career was just fine).

“Altered State” does manage to dodge hokum — almost entirely. Other than the snack machine, the silliest-feeling bit is the “lab strength gloves” with which attendees use to touch some dirt and pot plants encased in Plexiglas. Wouldn't it have been better to remind the public that the seats and rails on BART posed more of a health risk than dirt and leaves?

One of the more illuminating moments comes from kids. Paired next to a TV screen playing some of the drug war paranoia-fueled PSAs the now-adults of the DARE generation will recognize, are printed statements from modern-day teens at a local East Bay youth center.

They are almost hopelessly confused, and no wonder: The streets around their center are covered with discarded blunt wraps, they see friends and relatives still getting busted, they visit UC Berkeley, one of the country's most exclusive public schools, and see (white) students kicking back on the grass getting stoned. In another corner, where the museum solicits written feedback, the notes from adult members at opening night last Friday told a different story. “I love weed.” “I love it when people smoke in public.”

We also can't seem to agree what to tell our kids about reefer, even in 2016. We'd best figure it out soon, but in the meantime, it is an accomplishment just to have an honest conversation — which, if this is the best we can do in Oakland, demonstrates just how far the rest of the country has to come to get honest about cannabis.