When California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, they created the first legal medical marijuana system in the world. Also known as the Compassionate Use Act, Prop. 215 marked a watershed moment for cannabis policy reform in America and elsewhere.
But what is California Prop. 215, and what did it accomplish?
The Compassionate Use Act passed on Nov. 5, 1996, by a vote of 55.6 percent to 44.4 percent. The law allows any California adult with a qualifying health condition to obtain a written “recommendation” granting the right to grow, possess, and use medical cannabis.
Prop. 215 also allows patients to obtain their marijuana from “primary caregivers,” who may legally grow the drug for multiple patients. This provision has been loosely interpreted to allow medical pot dispensaries (also known as “collectives”) in many parts of the state, but in 2015 Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation designed to close many of them.
Here are the most important protections provided by California Prop. 215:
- Patients and primary caregivers are exempted from criminal laws against cannabis possession or cultivation.
- Doctors who recommend marijuana for medicinal use are protected from prosecution under state law.
- The Compassionate Use Act also protects California residents, stating that other anti-drug laws, including trafficking provisions, still apply.
Prop 215 failed to regulate the system
Proposition 215 included few specific regulations, leading to years of criticism that California’s medical marijuana system was lawless and chaotic. Patients can obtain official identification cards, but those cards are not required. Likewise, the Compassionate Use Act did not include a list of qualifying health conditions.
That means it’s up to individual physicians to determine, case by case, whether their patients would benefit from marijuana. No other state with a medical cannabis system has such open-ended patient qualifications.
Prop. 215 also lets patients grow and possess an unusually large amount of marijuana. Each patient may buy and possess up to eight ounces of processed bud and may grow up to 12 immature plants – or six mature plants.
Medical dispensaries are a common sight across California, but the state and local governments have been cracking down on them over the last few years. Most big cities now impose strict regulations and limit the number of legal shops, a situation that will continue under the rules Brown signed into law in 2015.
Medical marijuana has become widespread and easily accessible in the years since voters passed Proposition 215. This was a big part of the rationale behind a 2016 initiative to legalize cannabis for recreational use.
The Compassionate Use Act has also provided a template for medicinal cannabis systems in other states. Backlash against California’s loose regulations led many of those states to impose tighter rules, but the idea has always been the same: Marijuana should be available to any patient who legitimately needs it.
The American people agree, with support for medical pot above 80 percent in most places. And with California Prop. 215, the Golden State led the way.