As they stood on the steps of the county courthouse in Martinez on that crisp afternoon in December 2018, looking around at the modern day Band of Merry Pranksters/Robin Hoods brazenly handing out a tantalizing variety of cannabis products to eager citizens of Contra Costa County, the irony of it all was not lost on the local cannabis activists. “They can stop us from legally growing, buying, or selling weed, but they can’t stop us from giving it away.” In fact, when California voters legalized adult use of cannabis in 2016, the right of an individual to possess an ounce of flower (8 ounces for medical patients) was written into the law. As was the right of those individuals to give away up to those amounts per day to as many people as they wanted.
Also written into the law (as a political compromise that looks even worse through the lens of history) was “local control.” That meant that cities and counties could choose to permit, ban or everything in between commercial cannabis activity. Sadly almost all cities chose to ban retail sales, severely restricting consumer and patient access to the new marketplace. Even today, the most recent data indicates only 89 of 482 cities in California (slightly less than 20%) allow cannabis retail sales. Contra Costa County, a largely upscale (except for gritty West County Richmond) bedroom community for Oakland, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley had long been a “cannabis desert.” Except for the aforementioned Richmond with three medical dispensaries, no legal cannabis commercial businesses operated. At least two underground stores thrived in Concord (later Pachecho) and Pinole, while playing cat and mouse games with local authorities. And of course, countless indoor and outdoor grows.
The story of Contra Costa County is probably not unlike the other 80% of California cities who ignored the will of their citizens. What we will be doing in this series is taking a deep dive into how a group of ordinary citizens banded together in a grassroots effort that turned Contra Costa green. In Contra Costa (home to 1.15 million residents (26% Latino, 19% Asian/Pacific Islander, 10% Black, $94,000 median household income), over 60% of the voters approved Proposition 64. It took a fierce fight waged over many months by the brave souls on these Courthouse steps today to turn the tide.
CoCo NORML members showed up in the farm community of Byron, the halls of the Board of Supervisors (confronting the conservative Pacific Justice Institute), City Councils in Walnut Creek, Concord, Antioch and Martinez, Boards and Commissions throughout the County. Finally, the first dispensaries opened- Antioch in December, 2019 and Martinez, May, 2020.
Arya Campbell (aka the Weed Fairy) decided one day in 2017 that if no one else was going to lead the crusade for legalization in the County, she would step up to the plate. Arya organized the Contra Costa County (or CoCo) NORML chapter with a small group of fellow activists, and immediately brought the fight for legalization to the largest city in the county (Concord). In the early days, most Council meetings (some of which lasted until 1:30 in the morning) resulted in 4-1 defeats, the lone pro cannabis vote being the 2018 Mayor Edi Birsan (Concord is a general law city with rotating mayors).
The CoCo NORML activists who had organized the event were not yet aware that they were on the verge of winning over the hearts and minds in this suburban Bay Area County. The bitter fights and even bitter losses seemed unending.
The joy of the holiday season made it tough to recognize the importance of the dramatic guerilla political theatre they were about to stage in this quiet community. The volunteers were too caught up in the spiritual gratitude (and pure fun) of handing out an array of edibles, topicals, tinctures, pre-rolls, bags of flower, wax, and vape cartridges to the dozens of adults who had presented valid IDs.
Few thought about the fact that the leadership of the CoCo NORML chapter consisted primarily of brave women. Standing tall at countless public meetings, never intimidated by the tactics of the anti-cannabis forces (that’s the subject for Chapter 2, stay tuned), that day, dressed in holiday colors, they held picket signs with messages like “Free the Holy Herb” and “Cannabis is for Sharing.” They stood on the steps with “cigarette-girl” like trays decorated with holiday/cannabis themes.
While it is 100% legal for an adult to gift up to an ounce of flower and eight ounces of concentrate to another individual, seldom had public giveaways been organized. Especially in Contra Costa County.
On that December 8 however, for two hours, dozens of adults from the community, some in their early 20’s, some in their mid 70’s, patiently lined up with their IDs to accept cannabis gifts. Some came back for “seconds” and “thirds.” Calling to mind the cannabis ethos of generosity and sharing, on this day, the CoCo NORML crew did so in a very public and highly audacious fashion.
Highlights of the day included pub-crawling Santas that came to meet their jolly cannabis counterparts. Long-time, cannabis activists Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris helped organize the event. Pot guru Ed Rosenthal was among the generous citizens who donated product to make sure that the theatre had its props.
As the day came to a close, the volunteers reflected on the collaboration that had made it possible. Donated ounces had been sorted and repackaged into giveaway sizes. IDs had been checked. A dozen volunteers had chosen to devote their day to giving away weed to their fellow community members in front of the courthouse.
Arya reflected: “I’m thankful that I was legally allowed to give out cannabis, and that I had such a receptive, supportive community to share it with. Cannabis medicine benefits everyone, even those who haven’t discovered how yet, and in these days, where our mental health is tenuous, cannabis can be the stabilizing factor that allows us to get through stress. Using topicals for pain is a safe, non-psychoactive alternative to opiates. Have you considered gifting cannabis to friends and family this holiday?”
Greg Kremenliev first smoked weed at a Young Democrats convention in 1965, took some time off to raise 4 kids in Concord, Ca where he’s lived for 38 years. He re-emerged to become Co-director of Contra Costa County NORML in 2017
Menaka Mahajan, PhD is the founder of Mahajan Consulting and led a grass roots online campaign that forced the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to exempt cannabis from an anti-smoking ordinance.