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December 1, 2004

California Dreaming (Or: Mary Meets Jane)

A major story this week is the Supreme Court medical marijuana case. The court is set to decide whether two plaintiffs, Angel Raich and Diana Monson, can continue to use marijuana for medical purposes. If you read news accounts (link), a main point that is continually stressed is the fact both women are from California (even though the case also involves patients from 10 other states). Of course, it’s also evident that the main figures in the case are women.

medmarijuanangel
Angel Raich

medmarijuanazen
Diana Monson

As you know, I’m not shy about venturing into subjective territory. At the same time, I am the first to admit that the analysis of news images is a completely hypothetical and interpretative exercise. That being said, I have some strong questions as to whether we would seeing the same kinds of photos if these plaintiffs:

a) were men
b) were from a state other than California

On the gender issue, photos of women typically show them in more intimate settings, such as at home or in a bedroom, and tend to capture them in more intimate situations. Because the taking of a drug is both a personal, vulnerable and illegal act, I wonder if a man would have been shown sitting around his bedroom with his stash and his paraphernalia, or in the actual act of getting high.

It’s strange, but it wasn’t until I really studied these pictures that I considered they might represent an invasion of privacy (even if the lawyers encouraged it to help the case). Just to highlight the point, I should add that the photo of Ms. Monson (above) published in the L.A. Times was 3 columns wide, while the NYTimes ran both of these pictures, dedicating a 3 column width to Ms. Raich.

Regarding the geographic angle, California has always been characterized as a haven for dope smokers, religious fanatics, proponents of esoteric eastern philosophies, and general “weirdos.” By including the statue figure in the photo of Ms. Raich, it suggests that her use of marijuana has some unexplained religious overtones. Consistent with the off-beat religious stereotype, Ms. Monson is shown achieving an altered state against a background of natural rock. Again, it’s my interpretation, but the image seems to pull for some kind of zen association.

I have to say that the whole tenor of Ms. Raich’s photo is pretty strange. She is seated in a rather childlike position, facing her drug set-up as if it were a shrine. At the same time, her hands are extended in an expressive manner — but she seems otherwise mute. Also, the fact she is looking up and away only increases the strange quality. From reading about Ms. Raich, I believe these mannerisms are actually related to her extreme and debilitating illness. Which raises perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these photos: In neither picture is their any hint of medical or health-related problems.)

(photo/Ms. Raich: Ben Margot/Associated Press in NYTimes)
(photo/Ms. Monson: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press in NYTimes and LATimes)

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