Altered State: tracing marijuana’s long, strange trip through California

With the Golden State on the cusp of legalizing recreational pot, a new exhibition aims to spark conversation about the drugs past, present and future

Nancy Reagan looks you straight in the eye, disapproving, and reminds you to Just say no! An awkward Richard M Nixon promises via historic video that he will continue to oppose efforts to legalize marijuana. Bill Clinton flashes on the gallery wall, insisting: I didnt inhale.

By the time Barack Obama shrugs When I was a kid, I inhaled it frequently its obvious youre in an altered state. Not the chemical kind, but rather the Oakland Museum of Californias new exhibit exploring marijuanas long, strange, trip through California.

Billed as the first full-blown museum exhibit in the US featuring what some decry as devil weed and others applaud as a miracle drug, Altered State: Marijuana in California could not be more timely. In February, Governor Jerry Brown named the states first medical marijuana czar, just four months after signing a package of laws regulating medicinal pot.

More than 20 measures to legalize recreational marijuana have been jostling to get onto the November ballot in the Golden State, including the frontrunner bankrolled by Napster co-founder Sean Parker and endorsed by lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom.

Pick your pot: varieties of weed on display at Altered State. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

The exhibit opens Saturday and runs until 25 September, about six weeks before a roster of states is expected to vote on ballot measures legalizing recreational pot not just California, but Massachusetts, Arizona, Nevada and Ohio, among others.

We wanted to become a forum for conversation before the election, said curator Sarah Seiter, and also do stuff thats relevant to contemporary issues … In the Politically Loaded section we talk about different models for legalization and how we can choose to be like Seattle, or Washington DC, or like Uruguay, which is a state-run model. Well, we probably couldnt do that here.

There are actually many politically loaded sections, in particular the section called Criminal Dope, which explores how different law enforcement jurisdictions deal with marijuana a schedule one drug that is illegal on the federal level but legal for recreational use in Washington state, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska and the District of Columbia.

Although Oakland voters passed Measure Z in 2004, requiring the city to make cannabis the lowest priority for police, there are still tickets issued. One exhibit shows how three California cities mete out justice differently. In Oakland, most people ticketed for marijuana possession are black. In Los Angeles and Fresno, they are Latino.

Museum goers are asked to fill out their own police reports detailing whether they have ever been ticketed for pot or have interacted with police in other ways.

Much of the exhibit is interactive. At one station, people can smell the product, comparing the scents of various varieties. They can shove their hands into protective gloves and feel fresh pot leaves in a clear, secured box. The can buy snacks from a vending machine marked Munchies.

Visitors to the exhibition can touch a fresh marijuana plant though protective gloves. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

And they can go into a confession booth, draw the blue velvet drapes closed behind them and write about their own experiences with marijuana, things they might never tell anyone they know. The anonymous missives are then posted on the museum walls.

Some are already there, filled out by museum visitors over the summer as staff tested exhibit prototypes.

Sometimes I get mad @ weed b/c I think it was partly responsible for ruining one of my relationships. Everything in moderation, right?

I wish my 7 year old son with severe Autism could try this for anxiety and migraines so he could leave the house.

I am a little high right now

Broaching the topic of marijuana made museum staff think long and hard about what it means to be an institution today a time when politics are increasingly rancorous and the curious can find out anything they want using a smartphone and a good search engine.

Kelly McKinley, director of the Oakland Museums curatorial lab. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

If we want to wade into this, what do we hope to achieve, asked Kelly McKinley, who is the director of the museums curatorial lab. What can we contribute? We need to think about our role in a different way.

By presenting this topic, were taking a stand on the fact that its an important thing to talk about, she continued, as drills whirred, vacuum cleaners roared and staff members put finishing touches on the 3,500 sq ft gallery. Were not taking a stand on one perspective or another, but we feel that were uniquely equipped to be a place to make sense of the many, many different and often polarizing perspectives.

Those perspectives play out on the deep green walls that greet museum-goers at the entrance to Altered States. An image of Allen Ginsberg at a pro-pot demonstration is juxtaposed against the stern visage of William Bennett. The poets views on marijuana bump up against the former US drug czars, who served under Ronald Reagan.

Ginsberg: Pot is fun.

Bennett: Why in Gods name foster the use of a drug that makes you stupid?

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