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From the Frontlines to the Bottom Line: Medical Marijuana, the War on Drugs, and the Drug Policy Reform Movement



Thomas R. Heddleston

From The Frontlines to the Bottom Line: Medical Marijuana, the War On Drugs, and the Drug Policy Reform Movement

The medical marijuana movement began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1990s in a climate of official repression. This movement represents the most successful branch of the forty-year old drug policy reform movement. Using oral histories, participant observation, and archival research this dissertation explores the genesis, growth, and transformation of the medical marijuana movement in California from 1990 until 2012. I theorize the longevity of prohibitionist ideology over the course of the twentieth century in chapter one. Chapter two narrates the social history of the drug policy reform movement and its three branches; marijuana policy reform, harm reduction, and anti-prohibitionism. The three branches are characterized by diversification, as new organizations form to pursue different areas of drug policy reform, and competition for funding, but they maintain cooperative relationships with each other. My ethnographic fieldwork uncovered three types of physical sites, (hemp rallies, conferences, and the Internet), which play important roles in recruiting, networking, and facilitating cooperation on campaigns. The context and political opportunity structures of the San Francisco Bay Area were crucial factors in the genesis of the medical marijuana movement, but that activism and civil disobedience were also necessary for the movement to form. Activists and organizations in the metro areas of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego were able to shape different political opportunity structures that affected the regulation of medical cannabis dispensaries in each specific locale. Medical marijuana began as a social movement and then transformed into an industry by shifting from the field of social movement action to the field of commercial action. New types of participants, a perceived change in political opportunity at the national level, and a more prominent public profile typify this shift. The shift also contributed to a refocused federal campaign to dismantle the system of medical cannabis provision that activists and entrepreneurs built over the twenty-one year history of the medical cannabis movement in California.

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