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Deep Roots

Cannabis Blossoms at the Museum of Sonoma County

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Pot Propaganda The Museum of Sonoma County's "Grass Roots" exhibit includes archival material that promoted and condemned cannabis, like this poster held by show co-curator Eric Stanley.
  • Pot Propaganda The Museum of Sonoma County's "Grass Roots" exhibit includes archival material that promoted and condemned cannabis, like this poster held by show co-curator Eric Stanley.

Need evidence that cannabis is now fully in the mainstream? The Museum of Sonoma County has debuted a summer-long exhibit on the weed's local and national history.

It will likely blow minds both in and out of the cannabis industry with stunning photos and pithy quotes about hemp and cannabis from the likes of botanist Luther Burbank, novelist Jack London—who loved hashish—and the Emerald Cup entrepreneur genius Tim Blake.

The exhibition is supported by many of the usual North Bay suspects: Mercy Wellness, CannaCraft, Fiddler's Greens, Lagunitas Brewing Company, Rogoway Law Group and Sonoma Patient Group.

I can claim some credit for the exhibit that's billed as "Grass Roots: From Prohibition to Prescription," which traces how we as a culture got into the pot mess and how we're slowly digging our way out. Nearly 10 years ago, I suggested to the museum's history committee that it was imperative to mount an exhibit devoted to marijuana. "You planted the seed," says Eric Stanley, the co-curator of "Grass Roots," a week before the show opened. "The idea has always been in the hopper. Now is a perfect time for it to become a reality. We're post Prop-64, and, as a society, we're trying to figure out where we go from here."

If 2019 is a perfect time for "Grass Roots," Santa Rosa is a near perfect place for it. After all, for more than 50 years cannabis has been grown both indoors and outdoors, in and around Santa Rosa by farmers of all kinds and not just by first-, second- and third-generation hippies. The city has also provided, unintentionally, the locations of hundreds, if not thousands, of clandestine deals where cash and cannabis changed hands.

Conveniently located between the vast cannabis-growing regions to the west and the north, and the huge markets to the south, Santa Rosa has for decades been a truck stop on the cannabis highway. Much of that story has never been told in print or on film. Some of it might never be told. Dealers have disappeared. Records are non-existent and the black market days of old have faded. Still, the Museum of Sonoma County has located a trove of long-hidden materials.

In fact, the "Grass Roots" exhibit breaks new ground, though the Oakland Museum of California hosted a cannabis show in 2016 and helped raise awareness with voters who approved of Prop 64 in November of that year. The museum brings the history, the politics and the culture of cannabis to visitors who've never entered a dispensary nor understood the lyrics to Little Feat's 1978 hit, "Don't Bogart That Joint." After all, it's not everyday that marijuana memorabilia appears in a museum as a subject for serious attention.

Forestville's Nathan Henry Silva installed much of the exhibit and says he enjoyed nearly every moment of it.

"I have a personal connection to the topic," he says as he holds a power drill in his right hand. "My parents used marijuana and I use it, too, so it's not totally new to me. But I'm learning a lot of the history as I work. I'm glad to see that marijuana users are being de-stigmatized and people are realizing that cannabis is less harmful to minds and bodies than alcohol."

Stanley learned the hard way that mounting a cannabis exhibit was more challenging than many of the other exhibits he's curated. Over the last few months, he's been a detective looking for clues and evidence to tell a vital story.

"A lot of the history of cannabis has been underground," he says. "People who have been involved haven't documented their activities. Sometimes we can't find the kind of solid, reliable information, like names and dates, that are necessary for a museum."

Still, members of the community have come forward, offered their expertise and shared hundreds of posters, flyers and photos, some of which will be displayed. Vince Dugar, an amateur archivist from Petaluma, offered his cannabis collection of memorabilia. Joe Rogoway's Santa Rosa law office made a cannabis timetable for the exhibit and Sarah Schrader from Americans for Safe Access handed over a box of her old photos.

"Sonoma had a medical cannabis ordinance in 1993, six years before the state," Schrader says. "I'm excited that the exhibit will highlight some of the pioneering role that our county has played."

With help from Schrader and others, Stanley has uncovered a treasure of cannabis lore, legend and real products manufactured in Sonoma County, including a remedy for corns concocted by a Sebastopol pharmacist more than 100 years ago. Stanley also unearthed an 1883 news story from The Press Democrat about a 12-foot hemp plant that grew in Santa Rosa, prompting locals to wonder why hemp wasn't grown as a commercial crop.

"Grass Roots" is divided into five sections that cover almost everything related to cannabis including its origins, classification, medical use and commercialization.

Commercialization is what's happening now. There's also a section at the end of the exhibit that Stanley calls "a fun space" that has humorous cartoons, like those of the stoned hippie icons, the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" who appeared in underground newspapers in the 1960s and '70s.

Co-curator Brian Applegarth is as excited about the exhibit as anyone else at the museum. A cannabis tourism pioneer and historian, he says, "As we go forward into the multi-billion dollar global hemp and marijuana industries, we need to remember the history and the pioneers and preserve the positive values of the past so they aren't swept away."

What are those values? "Reverence for nature, appreciation for sustainability and mindfulness," Applegarth says.

Forty-five years ago, when I first saw cannabis cultivated in direct sunlight in Sonoma County, I never imagined the day would come when it would be the star of a museum show. We've come a long way since helicopters raided gardens and sheriffs deputies' arrested growers, took them to jail in handcuffs and stigmatized them as the enemies of society. Maybe there's hope for the future of cannabis, after all.

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