Weed Maps’ Museum of Weed Traces the Historic Highs & Lows of Cannabis
by Shawn Binder on 09/12/2019 | 9 Minute Read
Nothing ages you more than thinking fondly on the times when buying weed was seedy.
By seedy, I mean that I would knock four times on the door of my dealer’s Tallahassee apartment. I’d have two twenty-dollar bills clutched in my hand, palms sweaty from the illegal thrill of it all. I’d have to do a gravity bong hit with a guy who went by the moniker H, who had a bulldog and an apartment that smelled like Chex Mix and dip spit.
I was buying dime bags from H only six years ago, so all of this to say, even in my short time on this earth, the way we experience, purchase, and interact with weed, or, given it’s commercialized rebrand, cannabis, has completely changed.
Weed has had a—dare we say it—lit journey, something that the Museum of Weed was erected to highlight.
The Museum of Weed sits nestled on the corner of Cahuenga and Melrose in Hollywood. Nothing better represents the massive trajectory weed has seen in the last five years more than this behemoth building from Weed Maps, an app that allows you to view local dispensaries in your area, and browse their offerings.
Looking around Los Angeles you almost feel transported to another time period; dispensaries text their patrons daily deals (mine always lets me know they have a free taco truck outside for their customers and it’s like, chill, your product will sell itself), there are services in which people Postmates you your favorite strains and restaurants are opening up offering THC-infused fare.
With the recreational legalization of cannabis, the drug has undergone a massive PR makeover. Weed isn’t turning teens into horny, angry monsters, instead, stressed out moms are toking up after a long day, and medical patients who use cannabis as a pain-management tool have access to government-funded compassion acts that help pay for their buzz.
Naturally, the day I went to the Museum of Weed I had gone out with friends the night before, a staunch reminder that weed doesn’t make you feel hungover the way a double vodka soda will.
Entering into the massive main hall of the Museum, it’s a testament to how luxe cannabis brands have become. Immediately upon entering I was greeted by a group of friendly concierges, who let me know I was welcome to browse the gift shop, grab a CBD-infused coffee from the cafe, or snap a photo at one of the many Instagram-worthy moments laid out — In particular, the staircase that states “Highs and Lows” was a shot any influencer would be thrilled with.
I received a text message when it was my turn to enter the museum, and I was ushered through to a neon-lit hallway that signals the start of your weed journey. The first room you enter in the museum highlights the benefits of hemp, a strain of the Cannabis Sativa plant species grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. It is one of the fastest-growing plants and was one of the first to be spun into usable fiber 10,000 years ago. The first room tracks hemp's use in Civil War efforts for items such as bandages, rope, and barrels that protected soldiers from stray gunfire.
One of the most interesting facts I learned was, how after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws played a part in how society viewed cannabis, with the media portraying young black men as rageful and irrational. This room was a powerful reminder of how weed was originally used in the history of the United States, and how the perception of it and people of color is something that would persist through time.
The second room opened up to showcase how Hollywood in the 50s approached cannabis, with propaganda scaring people out of lighting up. 1936's Reefer Madness, one of the more prevalent films designed to scare parents and teens alike, played on loop as I perused the museums’ plaques letting guests know that Jazz and weed come joined at the hip, with America's one true art form written and described as “music the way weed makes you feel.”
If living in Los Angeles wasn’t a constant reminder of how the media brainwashes us, this room reinforced that during this period, weed-scare films served as a constant reminder that morals were on the decline, and anyone-even Hollywood stars-were susceptible.
The next room made me feel as if I had eaten an entire tray of weed brownies. Low-lit and filled with funhouse mirrors, the floors and walls featured words like “Degradation,” “Vice,” and “Insanity” across depictions of women in the grips of the devil. It became clear that while the fearful mindset around cannabis seems comical to us now, it was a genuine fear for those who thought a little toke of reefer would turn moralistic people into monsters.
As I stepped over a floor decal reading “Good girl until she lights ‘a reefer,’” I couldn’t help but think about how I, too, was a good girl until going to college and lighting a reefer, a fear of parents everywhere. Right, mom and dad?
The next few rooms hit especially close to home, as the timeline began to lay out the history of the 70s, and how the plant became synonymous with the anti-Vietnam War movement and became linked with the queer community. Cannabis became a route that people could use to discredit movements such as the Stonewall Riots and peaceful anti-war protests; because the general public saw these groups as cannabis-users, no one needed to take them seriously.
As a queer man myself, it was fascinating to see how Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ initiative saw to it that poor people were targeted and repressed in the war against drugs; particularly the depiction of black and LGBTQ+ communities as people who perpetuated the problem, and therefore should be feared.
The impressive thing about the museum of weed was that it didn’t try to paint the history of cannabis in a positive light. More than halfway through the museum I was getting the distinct understanding that the path to me being able to smoke a joint on the street was one paved by the pain, blood, and suffering of others. One room was set-up like a prison visitation room, with pictures and stories of non-violent weed offenders who are still in jail. Visitors are invited to read these incarcerated people’s stories, then sign a petition to review their cases. I signed, reminding myself that when dispensaries look like Apple Stores, the time to release people from jail for nonviolent weed charges is overdue—long overdue. In the 1990s, one of the museum walls states that 79% of drug-related arrests were due to marijuana possession, a statistic shockingly coupled with the fact that arrests for black men and women between 1986-1991 grew by 828%.
I had hoped the bummer portion of the Museum of Weed was over after leaving the jail room, but the curators of the museum had other plans. One of the final exhibits featured a hospital room, one of the first HIV wards, to be specific. A kind museum clerk named Sarah told me how cannabis was used to relieve the pain of HIV patients and spark their appetite, and how many rebels in the medical field there were at the time. They lined the walls with photographs of San Francisco activists and doctors who lost not just their reputation, but also their medical licenses in fighting for HIV patients to have access to cannabis. Sarah and I hugged in front of the portion of the AIDs quilt the museum houses. She pinned a red ribbon to my shirt, an emotional token of the AIDS movement, and a reminder of how we lost an entire generation of gay men to this vicious disease the government refused to acknowledge while they waged their war on drugs.
Finally, a reprieve from the emotionally heavy material the museum spat me out into the room of a teenager in the 90s. Films like The Big Lebowski and Dazed and Confused changed the way we viewed weed; it was less about making you into a monster and more about making you unambitious and a leech on society. An adorably playful poster featuring Bill Clinton hung on the wall with the quote “But I didn’t inhale,” a reminder of the time our President admitted to smoking weed, but, you know, not following through with it.
The next few rooms highlighted the new wave of commercials and media onslaught against weed, titled the “Just Say No” movement and how cannabis got looped into other anti-drug efforts which scared children-like me-into not only thinking marijuana and heroin were the same levels of fucked-up, but that if I took a hit of I’d instantly turn into a burnout living in my parent’s basement. A large display of televisions looped these ads in an Orwellian nightmare and reminded me why I probably need therapy from all the years of McGruff the Crime Dog commercials.
The last rooms of the Museum were the most technologically ambitious, with a timeline spanning the last decade of technological and legal advancements in cannabis. While history lessons can be a snooze, this timeline utilized VR, with your hand serving as the cursor allowing you to journey through time.
For the finale, they usher you into what they playfully titled “The Lab," a room that allows you to trace the history of various weed strains from Pineapple Express to Girl Scout Cookies, as well as the chemicals in pot and how they interact with your body.
In the dark, air-conditioned Lab, it felt like the perfect end to a history lesson riddled with pain and misunderstanding. If the rest of the museum were a timeline, The Lab represented the holistic history of weed, from where it first originated to how we can identify its potency today.
One of the aspects of the Museum of Weed that was missing, however, was perhaps the history of weed packaging. Weed has gone from something once hidden to an actual commodity, one we now laud when we find an innovative cannabis company rolling out incredibly designed product packaging. Hell, it’s wild to think about how elevated design is now when just ten years ago weed was something you had to seek out in shrouded mystery.
When you think about how the industry has shifted, from me buying dime bags from a man who required a secretively cadenced knock on his door to reporting on the stunning innovations of Mule’s vape packaging design or Canndescent wanting to become the Hermes of cannabis, it puts into perspective the massive transformation we see now.
The experience of smoking weed used to be parking outside an abandoned building with your friends while hot-boxing to oldies on the radio. Now, the packaging is part of the story. Take the museum itself; never has there been a more clear or highly stylized way to experience weed to showcase how, when it comes to cannabis, it’s not enough to hold the product in our hands.
To fully experience weed in 2019, one must take into consideration branding and design to make us favor one cannabis strain over another, and how unboxing a product becomes an event unto itself. We’ve shifted the conversation from the legalities of cannabis, to which brand not only has the best flower, but the best design.
As I stepped out of the Museum into the Los Angeles heat, my hangover came back in waves, pounding and unrelenting. I knew when I got home, I’d light up a joint, and immediately feel better, the museum serving as a reminder that while some vices have the air of social acceptance (yet cause you to feel like a truck barrelled over you), others have made a long and complicated journey.