Pubdate: Mon, 1 Jan 2001
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Copyright: 2001 Foundation for National Progress
Author: Evelyn Nieves


The desperately ill members of a Santa Cruz marijuana club aren't growing 
pot to get high or make money. They just want to find some relief.

Dorothy Gibbs is lying in bed in her trailer, barely able to move. It is a 
gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Santa Cruz, the October sun as full as 
July's. The curtains in Gibbs' room are half open; she is squinting as 
though the light stings her eyes. But her 90-year-old face, framed by a 
snowy froth of hair, looks cheerful, almost youthful. "I woke up in pain 
this morning," she says, "but then I took the marijuana and it made things 

She reaches for an eight-ounce bottle of brown liquid on a bedside tray and 
takes a swig. The tonic, a concoction of soy milk and marijuana known as 
Mother's Milk, looks like the muddy sand in a child's pail. "It doesn't 
taste like much of anything," she says with a shrug. "It just makes me feel 

Ten years ago, Gibbs, who had developed polio as an infant, was stricken by 
postpolio syndrome, leaving her arms nearly useless and her nerves on fire. 
Two years ago, at the suggestion of her full-time visiting nurse, she tried 
pot for the pain. ("I tried smoking it first," she says, "but it hurt my 
throat.") Now she is one of about 200 members of the Wo/Men's Alliance for 
Medical Marijuana, or WAMM, a Santa Cruz, California, cannabis collective 
run by and for people who are very ill.

If WAMM, the first medical marijuana club in the country to be granted 
nonprofit status, will not convince skeptics that cannabis may have a 
healthy purpose, nothing will. The collective, which grows its own 
marijuana and distributes it free to its members each week, is no pot 
party. About 85 percent of its members are terminally ill. Many of those 
who line up at the club's small, borrowed storefront every Tuesday evening 
had not used the drug before they developed life-threatening illnesses like 
cancer and AIDS. Others hadn't tried it before exhausting a medicine 
chest's worth of pharmaceuticals for chronic, debilitating ailments like 
postpolio syndrome or epilepsy. Relatively few have used marijuana the way 
Bill Clinton did in college, for fun.

The Tuesday night WAMM line is a gallery of illness. People come in 
wheelchairs, using walkers, clutching canes, bald from chemotherapy, gaunt, 
hollow-eyed, nearly wasted. The healthiest looking are the caregivers who 
come to pick up pot for members who are too ill to come themselves.

But it is not a grim group. After sitting in on five WAMM meetings, led by 
its firebrand director, Valerie Leveroni Corral, I was most struck by how 
spirited, even happy, members sounded. People announced picnic lunches, 
organized a weekend in Reno, offered rides, memorialized the latest member 
to die with fond remembrances and spirited anecdotes. They also complained, 
like a family around the dinner table. In one meeting, a member with AIDS 
griped about having to wait around for an hour listening to everyone's 
"issues" before the marijuana is doled out: "I'm in a room full of sick 
people," he said. "I don't exactly feel great about that when my T-cell 
count is down." That led to an hour of collective soul-searching on just 
what WAMM is supposed to be -- a community or a marijuana dispensary.

With laws legalizing medical marijuana already in effect in California, 
Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, and Hawaii (and with initiatives 
recently approved in Colorado and Nevada), medical marijuana groups around 
the country have been calling on WAMM to see how patient-run collectives 
ought to operate. It is not easy. Federal law supersedes state law, and the 
government refuses to budge in classifying marijuana as a dangerous, 
illegal narcotic -- and a gateway to harder drugs -- with no medical value. 
This means that in states where medical marijuana is legal, local and state 
law enforcement may leave the collectives alone but the Department of 
Justice could still step in, shut down the clubs, and prosecute patients 
and their caregivers. In 1999, an Institute of Medicine report commissioned 
by President Clinton's then drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, concluded 
that patients suffering from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss might 
find "broad spectrum relief not found in any other single medication" by 
using marijuana. But that failed to alter the federal government's position 
that possessing marijuana for any reason should be a crime.

There is an encouraging development in the battle for legitimacy: In 
September, ruling on a class-action suit filed against the government by 
medical marijuana advocates, including WAMM, federal Judge William Alsup of 
the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco ruled that the government could 
not punish doctors who recommend the benefits of marijuana to their 
patients. And while the federal government has threatened to prosecute 
medical marijuana patients, that seems increasingly unlikely given the 
public's growing acceptance of the drug as medicinal.

Medical marijuana clubs began quietly operating in the early 1990s in 
response to the AIDS crisis, and in 1996 California passed a groundbreaking 
voter initiative, Proposition 215, that legalized possession of marijuana 
for patients with a doctor's recommendation who are suffering from AIDS, 
cancer, glaucoma, and other illnesses. But the fight for the right to exist 
is far from over. Especially since the passage of Prop. 215, the federal 
government (or state and local police, invoking federal law) has continued 
to shut down marijuana clubs in California and has repeatedly confiscated 

WAMM was started in 1993, lucky to be born in Santa Cruz. The coastal city 
about 75 miles south of San Francisco is one of the most tolerant in the 
country. Here's a place where old and young hippies sit cross-legged on the 
sidewalk, strumming guitars all day, where the City Council proposed 
"sleeping zones" for the homeless (until the town was inundated by urban 
campers from all over the West), and where the nation's first bed and 
breakfast for medical marijuana users opened last year with great fanfare. 
True to form, Santa Cruz has honored WAMM with official proclamations and 
vowed to defend the collective's right to exist. The city's position, 
endorsed by the mayor, district attorney, and chief of police, is that 
Santa Cruz will abide by California's medical marijuana law, and never mind 
the feds.

In fact, WAMM runs a tight ship. It is strict about membership, admitting 
only the very sick, and only those with a written recommendation from a 
doctor who agrees to monitor the use of marijuana in the patient's 
treatment. The club also preaches respect for the law. Except for the 
location of its marijuana garden, deep in the Santa Cruz mountains, it is 
not secretive about how it operates. Valerie Corral occasionally counsels 
officials in cities throughout California on how best to implement and 
abide by Prop. 215. She recommends that medical marijuana collectives 
operate openly and, as WAMM has done, work with law enforcement officials 
to make sure they are operating in accordance with state law.

"It's imperative that we patients are really respectful to the law so that 
we can prove that we're not trying to pull the wool over the eyes of law 
enforcement," said Corral, an epileptic who uses marijuana to control 
seizures and alleviate mind-stopping headaches. "For police, their 
experience is still the mindset of marijuana being a gateway drug, of the 
horror that drugs cause in people's lives. Our job is to show that it's so 
much more of a medicine than it is a problem."

For Corral, WAMM is much more of a communal support group than a marijuana 
dispensary. For WAMM, Corral is much more of a spiritual leader than a 
director. It is almost impossible to imagine the organization without her. 
She is 48 years old, about five feet tall, with an auburn pageboy, a 
collection of tiny gold hoops in her left ear, and Cher's cheekbones. In 
part, she provides the public face of WAMM: She speaks to politicians, was 
appointed to the California Attorney General's task force on Prop. 215, 
testifies at hearings on medical marijuana, and organizes memorials for 
WAMM members. She is also the resident Best Friend and therapist at WAMM. 
Unsolicited, members would come up to me and call her their angel or 
savior. But Corral quickly points out that she has lots of help behind the 
scenes. Her husband of 22 years, Mike, a slim man with a shaved head, wide 
smile, and thick dark eyebrows, grows and cultivates the marijuana WAMM 
gives away in a garden that has become a kind of sacred place for the 

The Corrals are expert growers, having started more than 25 years ago 
following a freak car accident that left Valerie wracked by seizures. The 
accident happened in 1973, when she was 20. She was near Reno, the 
passenger in a Volkswagen Beetle being driven by her friend. "I could see 
an old plane in the distance," Corral recalled. "It was flying very low as 
it came near. We thought it maybe had to make an emergency landing." The 
plane flew by, then, seemingly lost, looped around and roared back toward 
them. The torque of the plane caused the VW to cartwheel. Corral's friend 
shattered the left side of her body; Corral suffered severe brain trauma, 
leading to blackouts and epileptic seizures, up to five a day.

For more than two years, Corral walked around in a sedated stupor. Hooked 
on Percodan, Valium, and Mysoline, she was obsessed with changing 
medications and trying different dosages to control her seizures. By then, 
she was living with Mike, who had become her caretaker. He found an article 
about how marijuana helped control seizures in laboratory animals and 
procured some for Valerie. "That changed our lives," she said, sitting in 
her living room in a rare moment of quiet, with Mike by her side. "I would 
take marijuana and the seizures diminished. By 1977, I was seizure free." 
She still suffers migraine headaches and, to prevent seizures and control 
nausea, smokes marijuana regularly, although not daily.

The Corrals bought their first piece of property in the Santa Cruz 
mountains with part of the $40,000 insurance settlement she eventually 
received from her accident and began growing marijuana in an organic 
garden. Eventually, they began giving some of it away to people they knew 
who were dying of cancer.

Luckily for WAMM, the couple has few expenses. The Corrals own their own 
home, and a second piece of property and some stock market investments 
provide their income. A modest lifestyle -- a blue-jeans wardrobe and a 
house filled with a cozy mishmash of old furniture -- allows them to devote 
themselves to WAMM full-time.

In 1992, the local sheriff arrested the Corrals on felony charges for 
cultivating five marijuana plants in their front yard. The district 
attorney vowed to seek the maximum penalty for the crime: three years in 
state prison. Instead, all charges were dropped when the district attorney 
decided that no jury would convict them. A year later, they were arrested 
again. The highly publicized arrests prompted a flood of calls from people 
who wanted to use marijuana for their illnesses. The Corrals began working 
as advocates for medical marijuana and started WAMM that year.

"You have a car accident and you think you get a brain trauma out of it," 
Valerie said, "and instead, it becomes this wonderful opportunity to meet 
people at the most crucial time in their lives." She has watched more than 
80 members of WAMM die over the years. Many more, given the nature of the 
members' illnesses, will die over the next few years. But she firmly 
believes that WAMM enhances the quality and longevity of sick people's 
lives, and not just because of the marijuana. Members become friends, 
almost like family. Two members who met at the Tuesday meetings got married 
last summer. Some have become outspoken advocates of medical marijuana in 
their own right. "One of the great things about WAMM is that it puts 
patients in charge of their health care," Valerie said. "I just hope that 
when the drug companies and federal government find a way to make money off 
of medical marijuana, we'll still be here."

On a Sunday afternoon in October the Corrals and about a dozen other WAMM 
members began the happy task of harvesting the marijuana plants that will 
supply the club for 2001. The air on the property, which is perched on a 
secluded cliff overlooking the Pacific, was redolent with the pungent-sweet 
scent of marijuana. Mike Corral and George Hanamoto, a 66-year-old glaucoma 
patient, cut down marijuana plants in the fenced-in garden. The other WAMM 
members sat in a circle under a tarp, trimming the plants to make it easier 
to harvest the buds during drying.

Five of the members present had AIDS. Two had breast cancer. One had colon 
cancer. A young man who brought his brother along was suffering from lupus. 
Suzanne Peterson, a pretty 42-year-old and mother of three teenage sons, 
who had been disabled by a severe case of postpolio syndrome, trimmed 
plants from a wheelchair. Half a dozen dogs, two of them belonging to the 
Corrals, wandered around the group. Members drank beer and soda and munched 
potato chips, chatting about nothing in particular. It felt like a garden 
party, which in a way it was.

"I love WAMM and this garden," said Hanamoto during a break from his 
cutting. Once a straight-and-narrow television repairman, he now wears his 
hair in a long ponytail. A white undershirt revealed a surprisingly taut 
physique. "WAMM changed me," he said. "I feel like I'm doing something in 
my life." He is now the garden coordinator, a kind of deputy to Mike 
Corral, and spends Sundays in the garden with his wife, Jean. "We speak 
about my using marijuana openly a lot, to everyone we know," he said. "I 
try to put it to people that people who smoke marijuana are not 
brain-dead." Marijuana, he said, has relieved the pressure in his eyes from 
glaucoma. "About two years after I started using it, a doctor said the 
glaucoma was gone," he said.

Mike, who was nearly shrouded by plants, said he was well aware of the 
government's dismissal of the benefits of marijuana for glaucoma and other 
ailments. But countering the official doubt comes easily after his 25 years 
of research, experimentation, and growing, he said. "There are 462 
molecules in marijuana," he said with a wry smile, "so there's a long way 
to go before this is fully investigated."

For several years his wife has assiduously been documenting the type and 
amount of marijuana WAMM members use to test the effectiveness not only of 
the strain of the plant used but also of the method of ingestion. Members 
take the herb in muffins -- though many complain that this way makes the 
drug too strong -- as well as in Mother's Milk, in cigarettes, or in a 
tincture added to food or drink. Mike uses the responses from members to 
experiment with different marijuana plant varieties.

"We're working with pure indica strains, pure sativa strains, and hybrids," 
he said. "We're growing more indica this year than the sativa because the 
membership prefers it for pain." He looked around the garden, where the 
plants bloomed fat and tall. "I can tell this is going to be a vintage year 
for purple indica," he said, gazing like a proud papa at a bush about six 
feet high.

Valerie Corral, in overalls and sneakers, tiptoed into the garden to take a 
look. She is prone to smiling, which she did automatically when she saw 
Mike among the flourishing plants. She squeezed his hand and kissed him. 
"This garden," she said, "is beautiful."
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