What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Just ask Kandice Hawes. As an 18-year-old who was visiting Sin City from Orange County during a break in her freshman year in college, she was pulled over by police and arrested for marijuana; her car was impounded, and she was sent to jail, where she served time with prostitutes, hardcore drug addicts and petty criminals.
“I was enraged,” Hawes recalls. “I felt it was unfair for the government to treat people who smoke cannabis like criminals.”
The untimely arrest disqualified Hawes from receiving federal financial aid for college. This draconian measure may be finally dropped thanks to the so-called Student SUCCESS Act (Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success), a bipartisan bill that would remove provisions in the Higher Education Act that denies financial aid to candidates convicted of drug offenses.
After getting out of jail, Hawes immediately contacted the California chapter of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and asked how she could get involved in the movement to legalize marijuana. “They had a conference in San Francisco, and I met all these doctors and lawyers and academics who felt the same way I did,” she says. Her next step was to put out a call to anyone in Orange County interested in forming a local NORML chapter. At OC NORML’s first meeting, a retired doctor and a businessman showed up. “Ever since then, we have had new people at every meeting.”
Now, thanks in no small measure to Hawes’ relentless effort to wipe marijuana prohibition off the books, OC NORML (which will celebrate its 13th anniversary this July) is one of the largest, most active chapters in California. In just the past few years, the group was responsible for bringing the inaugural Kush Expo to Anaheim, hosted the first senior citizen’s medical-marijuana conference in Laguna Woods and pioneered medical-marijuana legalization in Santa Ana. (OC NORML’s ballot proposal, the first to qualify, ultimately received fewer votes than a rival legalization initiative, which the city then adopted into law.)
Looking back over the past decade of see-sawing marijuana politics in Orange County, with cities first tolerating, then banning marijuana dispensaries, Hawes sees strong signs of hope for the industry. “All these cities are rushing to ban all these different uses for medical cannabis,” she acknowledges. Yet off-the-record conversations with city officials throughout the county confirm that with successful licensed (and, more important, taxed) cannabis programs in cities such as Oakland and Santa Ana, many cities are open to reversing their bans once suitable regulations can be crafted.
The fact that she recently became a mother—her infant son can usually be heard in the background whenever Hawes answers her cellphone—hasn’t slowed her down at all, with Hawes determined to move fast to capitalize on Santa Ana’s local legalization beachhead. “The past 13 years have been a roller coaster,” says Hawes, “and now we are at a low with a lot of Orange County cities banning cannabis. But I think we might back on a high soon.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).