The North Bay’s undeniable culture
Tucked deep in the rolling green hills of California’s North Bay, there lies an often unspoken, but most always assumed, connection between cannabis culture and artistic expression.
It’s true—Marin, Napa and Sonoma may not celebrate their love of this particular psychoactive plant as openly, overtly and obviously as their sister city just across the Golden Gate Bridge. But that doesn’t mean that the cultural undercurrent of cannabis is any less strong in the North Bay’s stream of creativity. It’s not as though a bridge (and a little water under it) is enough to keep an entire countercultural movement of art and activism at bay.
With the highest of holidays (4/20) right around the corner, it’s time to acknowledge just how influential the North Bay is and has been as a hub of culture, art, creativity and cannabis. After all, it was a group of high school students from San Rafael who created the term 4/20 to begin with, sparking a nationally-celebrated holiday with its epicenter right in the heart of Marin.
“Cannabis is part of the reality of the North Bay,” said Jonah Raskin, local writer, author and resident cannabis expert. “The North Bay is food, wine and marijuana, and it’s as much a part of the culture of Northern California as grapes are. It just isn’t as visible since it’s still a taboo subject to a great deal of people.”
Given that cannabis was not legal for medical use in California until 1996 and did not become recreationally legal until 2016, this taboo makes sense. But, as many Bay Area locals are aware, legality did not stop the beatniks, the hippies or creative individuals (such as Raskin) from partaking in some pot alongside their passion projects.
“I would roll a ton of joints and smoke them and be mildly stoned throughout the day,” said Raskin. “It helped me to be stoned and write. I finished the book, it was published, and I wrote a bunch of books stoned afterwards.”
“While living in Northern California, I wanted to continue writing, and the things I could see around me were wine and marijuana,” continued Raskin. “I felt more at home in the cannabis world than the wine and grapes world. For one thing, the cannabis world was partially hidden, and grapes and wine were out in the open.”
Raskin moved from the East Coast to Sonoma County in 1976 and, like many notable cannabis-consuming creatives, lived in the North Bay for many years. He built a prolific portfolio of provocative pieces of prose, lectured in English at Sonoma State University and became a well-known contributor to many publications, including High Times and the Bohemian, to name only a couple.
“So, I knew that I could write while I was stoned, and what I wrote was published and I got paid for it, so that seemed to be proof that marijuana was an encouragement to creativity,” he noted.
Alongside Raskin are countless other cannabis-consuming creatives who were either born, raised, schooled, lived and/or died in the North Bay. To separate these individuals’ art from their enjoyment of cannabis is nigh-on-impossible and, frankly, brings to mind the age-old question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, in this case, the toking or the artistic talent? Imagination or smoke inhalation?
World-famous author Jack Kerouac lived in Mill Valley and was at the forefront of the Beat Movement of the mid-1900s. Maya Angelou, activist, poet and pot-user, also lived in the North Bay for a time and called Sonoma County her home. Fleetwood Mac recorded the Rumours album in Sausalito. Alan Watts, Peter Coyote and (perhaps the most iconic cannabis-consuming artist from California) Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead all lived in and smoked weed in the North Bay.
These accomplished artists were all pro-cannabis in a time where the stigma against the plant was significantly stronger than it currently is. Nowadays, anyone over the age of 21 can have weed delivered to their doorstep in a process as simple as getting a pizza delivered. Not only is cannabis infinitely more accessible; it’s also (near-infinitely) more potent.
“I remember once going into a dispensary in Santa Rosa—I forget which one—and I was talking to some of the budtenders to help decide what kind of product to choose for myself,” said Raskin. “One of the bud tenders described one of the marijuana strains as making you feel like an 800-pound gorilla is sitting on you. I asked who would want that, and he said there were customers who did.”
With cannabis only growing stronger, more accessible and less stigmatized with every passing day, and with the deeply ingrained counterculture movement that has not-so-secretly pervaded the North Bay for the past 70 years, it’s safe to say the creative use of cannabis is here to stay.
Much like the careful cultivation of wine grapes, which are bred, grown and fermented just so to create the world-famous wines of Napa, cannabis cultivation is an art form of its own. Strains of cannabis are carefully selected, bred, grown, trimmed, cured and sold in just as meticulous a fashion as any varietals in a wine bottle. And, given the cultural history of cannabis in the North Bay, it’s apparent there’s room for both wine and weed in the field of artisanal cultivation.
“Mike Benziger is a local farmer who thinks of himself as an artist because of his garden of cannabis,” explained Raskin. “He is a prime example of the marijuana grower as an artist. He grows his marijuana right next to the Jack London State Historic Park—oh, and as an aside, Jack London also smoked and loved hashish. Artists have been using cannabis for a very long time and, in my opinion, will continue to do so.”
All this goes to say, though the artists of the North Bay may not always advertise their love of cannabis with Rastafari colors and plumes of smoke, that doesn’t mean the culture is any less prevalent than it is in other parts of the Bay Area, such as Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. And, whether the artist is world-famous, understated, up-and-coming, underrated, historically significant or part of the new wave of creatives, it’s fair to presume that a fair few of them have indulged in a little bit of cannabis-induced imagination and inspiration in their process of artistic creation.