Sam McManis

Discoveries: Oakland Museum rolls out major marijuana exhibition

This U.S. Forest Service photo shows trees damaged to make room for light to hit marijuana plants growing in a California forest. The Oaklan Museum’s new exhibit highlights the many issues of marijuana in the state.
This U.S. Forest Service photo shows trees damaged to make room for light to hit marijuana plants growing in a California forest. The Oaklan Museum’s new exhibit highlights the many issues of marijuana in the state. USFS

Step right up to the black crushed-velvet curtain, over there in that closet-size space with the curious word CONFESSIONAL emblazoned across the archway.

Don’t be paranoid.

Don’t be all trippin’.

This is a safe space.

Nothing is punitive. You don’t have to recite, “Forgive me, Willie Nelson, for I have spliffed … ” Not even a nosy Oakland Museum of California docent will cast an arched-browed glance your way.

All you do is take a seat in the all-white booth, lit by a single bare bulb and adorned only with a simple command – “What would you say about marijuana if you knew you would remain anonymous?” – and grab a pencil from the cup imprinted with that classic seven-leafed pattern. Close the curtain, if that makes you feel more secure.

Then tell your marijuana story. Write anything at all – pro or con or hallucinogenically indecipherable – about the herbaceous plant that has sparked hellacious disagreement over the decades, remains a Schedule 1 narcotic by federal decree but is legal for recreational use in three states and, most likely, will go before California voters this fall.

Open only a week, and the wall outside the “cannabis confessional” at the museum’s landmark exhibition, “Altered State: Marijuana in California,” already has been papered with myriad responses from anonymous users, detractors and those simply trying to make sense of sensimilla.

A few examples:

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

▪ “I am a little high right now.”

▪ “My line of work puts me under extreme stress. All I need to do is pack a bowl and unwind. Why not? I deserve it!!!”

▪ “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Big deal? A quick stroll through the museum’s Grand Hall will give visitors an idea about just how big a role marijuana has played in the nation in the past century or two.

 

Culturally and politically, criminally and medicinally, the debate over the use of the drug has, well, grown like a weed in recent decades, with Oakland and the Bay Area being kind of a ground zero in the medical marijuana movement and legalization effort.

But the OMCA, to its credit, has played it straight in its expansive and almost encyclopedic presentation, focusing on the science of cannabis, its medical use, the economics of the illicit (and, now, partially licit) sale.

Exemplifying this even-handedness, this may be the only time in recorded history that quotations from, and mug shots of, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks and reggae legend Bob Marley share the same poster board.

“We’re trying to present it in a way that doesn’t glorify one perspective over another,” said Lori Fogarty, museum director. “We are not taking a stand, pro- or anti-legalization. This is a complex topic, often informed by personal experience. … It will likely be on the ballot in the fall, and we need an informed citizenry.”

But lest you think such a cerebral approach will leave viewers with the museum-going equivalent of dry mouth, the curators (yes, there are several for such an undertaking) added some fun and lightheartedness to the blend.

The “cannabis confessional” being one.

Flanking the confessional, on each side, is sort of angel-and-devil wings of the exhibit.

To the right is a space titled “Evil Weed.” To the left, “Creative Grass.” The former is the angel, the upright paternalistic voice warning you of the dangers of pot and reprising those late-1930s “Reefer Madness” films, with voiceover narration such as “This harmless-looking cigarette, once you inhale the smoke, it becomes an invitation to your own MURDER!” That section also bears scare-tactic posters from back in the day. To wit: “Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell. Shame. Horror. Despair.”

Curiously, though, the “Evil Weed” display also features presidential takes on the drug. It starts with a jowly, perspiring Richard Nixon vowing to oppose legalization. Quick cut to then-candidate Barack Obama telling an interviewer, almost casually, “I inhaled, frequently.” Switch to stern-faced Nancy Reagan: “I was in Oakland, California, and I was asked by a group of children what to do if they were offered drugs. And I answered, ‘Just say no.’ ” And, of course, Bill Clinton’s laughable “I didn’t inhale” answer rounds out the montage.

The “devil” wing, as it were, is on the left of the confessional. Here, visitors get to see the raucous – OK, mostly laid-back – good times being had by those who imbibed as filtered through pop culture. From The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” to “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds,” this display shows the changing mores and seemingly mainstream acceptance.

Seeing these images, entertaining as they may be, is nothing you couldn’t experience with just a few keystrokes on a Google search. What sets “Altered State” apart is that large, live marijuana plants, under hot-house grow lights, are smack in the middle of the entryway.

Sarah Seiter, the associate curator for natural sciences, is quick to point out that the museum does not own the plant. That would be illegal. The plants are on loan from Oakland grower Dark Heart Nursery, a licensed breeder of marijuana plants.

Visitors can even handle plants themselves, caress the leaves. Sort of. A few smaller plants are encased in a plexiglass box with two armholes that lets you handle the goods through a pair of rubber gloves, a la scientists handling bio-hazardous materials.

Speaking of touchy subjects, the whole idea of a large-scale marijuana exhibition in a mainstream museum seems rife for blowback from opponents of legalization of the drug – even though, as Fogarty and others repeatedly pointed out, the museum takes no stand.

So far, at least, Seiter said the reaction has been strong on both sides, but no howls of protest for even staging the exhibition. She said museum board members were open and enthusiastic about the idea, even though many are “venerable citizens of Oakland” who are “older and serve on a lot of boards and are well-connected in the community.”

In a way, Seiter seems a tad let down that “Altered State” hasn’t had an incendiary reaction.

“I don’t want to say we welcome controversy,” she said, “but it’s an exhibit that’s supposed to be a conversation. If people have strong anti-marijuana beliefs, we’d love to have them come down and share their thoughts.”

The black crushed-velvet curtain is, of course, open to all.

Altered State: Marijuana in California

Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland

Cost: $15.95 general; $10.95 seniors and students with ID; $6.95 ages 17 and younger

When: Through Sept. 25

More info: http://museumca.org

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