Pubdate: Wed, 12 Nov 2008
Source: Metro Santa Cruz (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Metro Newspapers
Author: Jessica Lussenhop
Cited: Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


After 15 Years of Devotion to the Medical Marijuana Movement in Santa 
Cruz, WAMM Founders Michael and Valerie Corral Face the Loss of Their 
Land and the End of a Dream.

On Friday, Oct. 10, one of the final days of the marijuana harvest in 
her garden, Valerie Leveroni Corral feels the first real chill of 
fall on the deck of the home she built in the Santa Cruz Mountains. 
Stepping around her geriatric dog Ebo and over a deaf cat lying 
supine in a pool of morning sunlight, she pulls a coat on over her 
tiny frame and gets into her old Volvo station wagon to drive the 
gravel road to the garden.

A few members of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, the 
collective Corral founded with her husband, Michael, are making the 
drive up through the cool redwood forest that envelops the house. 
Michael will be by shortly as well, despite the fact that he and 
Valerie separated two years ago. He is still a close friend and 
remains WAMM's marijuana cultivation expert.

On foot, the garden is about a 200-yard hike from the house on a dirt 
path through the redwoods. Inside a barrier of wire and fencing to 
protect against rooting pigs, deer and rabbits, a dozen marijuana 
plants grow in great bushy formations more than 6 feet high, 
sometimes drooping under the weight of the sticky buds. The plants' 
green and dusky purple leaves fill the air with a heady scent mixed 
with the muskiness of the desired product. In front of the Corrals, 
who've been growing marijuana since the '70s, the impulse is to act 
unimpressed, but the marijuana seems almost supernatural or mystical. 
It's more of a presence than a plant.

It's not obvious by looking at Valerie that she's sick, but she 
smokes pot about once a day to help control her epilepsy symptoms. At 
56 years old, she has lines in her face from the wind and sun but 
moves with the impatience of a grade schooler. She stands just a bit 
over 5 feet under a long cascade of dyed red hair that contrasts 
sharply against the supersaturated greenery around her. She steps up 
to one of her plants and inhales deeply. "Oh, that smells so good," 
she says. "My favorite."

The WAMM volunteers arrive, a young couple, an older woman with 
breast cancer, another woman with AIDS and two dogs. They snap on 
pairs of black rubber gloves and begin popping the five-fingered 
leaves off the stem. But instead of bagging them like usual to be put 
through a long process of drying, filtering and blending to create a 
THC-spiked flour for baked goods, Michael tells them to let the 
leaves fall to the ground. "It has to do with the sale. We don't have 
time," he says. "If the sale of the property goes through, we won't be here."

Michael is in the middle of drafting a counteroffer for the land on 
which the garden and the house sit. After advertising on Craigslist 
and by word of mouth, they're in talks with a man who grew up nearby, 
on Last Chance Road, and whose ideas mesh well with the Corrals' hope 
that the wilderness surrounding their rustic home will remain largely 
untouched. "We hope that it will be monitored and loved and honored," 
says Valerie. "The big hope is that we wouldn't have to leave it. But 
that doesn't seem possible." If the counteroffer is accepted, they'll 
be off the deed by January.

Their land is a 106-acre parcel off Swanton Road north of Davenport 
that Valerie likes to say is shaped like the state of California. It 
scales a steep incline, the top of which offers a spectacular view of 
the ocean, the dramatic plunge of the tree-covered hillside and, on 
clear days, a view of Ano Nuevo Island. It is generally accepted as 
truth that Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash owned the land before 
the Corrals, and on Google Maps, it's possible to see an aerial view 
of the marijuana.

Valerie loves the property fiercely, like it's a person. "It's been 
such a great gift to so many people, it's changed our lives 
incredibly," she says. "We want whoever comes here to serve the land 
in at least a fraction of the way it served so many humans, providing 
medicine and food and making their lives less painful."

But as of July this past summer, the land that the Corrals called 
their home for over 20 years is slipping away. Because of a perfect 
storm of factors--plummeting donations to WAMM, the DEA raid of the 
property in 2002, death and taxes--Valerie can no longer afford to 
stay in her home, and WAMM is losing its iconic garden. "I'm 
exhausted," says Valerie. "I'm losing my land, the place I thought 
that I'd be buried."

Though the situation is complex, Ben Rice, an attorney who has 
represented the Corrals for the last 15 years, blames the situation 
solely on the federal government. Without the DEA's continual assault 
on California law, medical marijuana organizations would not be 
raided, would not spend their savings on legal defense and would not 
lose precious donations due to spooked members. "WAMM is sort of the 
soul of the medical marijuana community," says Rice. "This never 
would have happened if the feds had taken the time to look at what 
WAMM was about and who Mike and Val were.

"For them to lose this property--they've given everything they have 
to WAMM, and this is what they get for it. It's so, so sad."

Back to Nature

The land first came to the Corrals long before WAMM and the trouble 
with the feds. As a young couple in the late '70s and early '80s, 
they lived off the grid near the summit on 35 acres they cultivated 
themselves. "We were so buff in those days," says Valerie. "I used to 
say we lived in a shoebox and bathed in a teacup."

When they befriended Alexander Peter Willoughby Leith, a wealthy 
Englishman who'd moved to the area looking to create a Tibetan 
Buddhist retreat, he was impressed with the Corrals' talent for land 
management. "He wanted to live rurally, but he had no knowledge of 
how to do that," says Michael. "He asked us to sell our property and 
go in with him on this piece of property we're at now."

That meant that after an up-front sum the rest of the Corrals' 20 
percent of the land would be paid for in labor--building roads, 
turning expanses of 7-foot-high weeds into garden and generally 
making it livable. In exchange they could live rent-free, enjoying 
the fresh food they grew themselves, spectacular views, the privacy 
and the experience of living intimately with Mother Nature.

"We view it as sanctuary," says Michael.

"Do we ever," says Valerie quietly.

"The idea was that Val and I would just be able to live here until we 
died," says Michael.

Though the Buddhists never ended up having a strong presence on the 
property, WAMM carved its identity out of it as the early '90s 
brought medical marijuana to the forefront of the Corrals' lives.

Originally, the couple grew five marijuana plants in the small garden 
in front of their house for Valerie's epilepsy. In 1992, the plants 
were spotted in a helicopter flyover, and the ramshackle house built 
from reclaimed structures that fell during the 1989 earthquake was 
raided by sheriff's deputies.

It was not the first time they'd been questioned by law enforcement, 
but it was the first time their explanation--that the plants were 
medicinal--fell on deaf ears. Reagan's zero tolerance policy had 
trickled down and local cops, even in laissez-faire Santa Cruz, were 
no longer willing to turn a blind eye.

The fact that Valerie's trial occurred just before Santa Cruz 
residents were to vote on Measure A, the Marijuana for Medical Use 
Initiative, thrust the Corrals into the media spotlight, with Valerie 
as medical marijuana poster child. After the measure, which 
encourages local officials to do everything in their power to help 
make marijuana available to patients, passed by 77 percent of voters, 
District Attorney Art Danner decided to drop the charges against 
Corral. The publicity brought ailing patients out of the woodwork; 
they read about the Corrals in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and found them 
in the phone book.

The first was Tony Degnan, who at only 35 years old was dying of 
colon cancer. "Tony was so ill. His parents had no idea who to call; 
they called one of his friends and the friend freaked out," says 
Valerie. "He was like, 'Oh, my god, Tony's parents are calling me about pot!'"

At first, they divvied up the two-year supply the Corrals usually 
grew for Valerie free of charge. But as the calls flooded in, they 
eventually decided to also donate their time and expertise and began 
growing additional plants.

"Every year after '92 or '93, the garden grew out of necessity," says 
Michael. They began growing the marijuana in the larger garden among 
their tomatoes, squash and corn, but it didn't take long for the pot 
to take precedent, from five plants to 16, and then to 40, and up and up.

The WAMM collective was officially born as an incorporated nonprofit 
in 1996, the same year that Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use 
Act, passed. The cannabis indica and sativa, strains from Afghanistan 
and Malawi respectively, were carefully dried, processed and 
distributed for free to WAMM members who smoked the herb for a 
variety of ailments--chemo sickness, glaucoma, chronic pain, AIDS. As 
the number of members grew to 250 people, so did the garden, until it 
was a lush forest of 200 plants standing shoulder to shoulder, 
enjoying the moist ocean air that blows up the mountain.

Baggie Buddies

Fridays from 10:30am to 2:30pm at WAMM headquarters on Almar Street 
are joint-rolling days. Ten middle-aged members have gathered around 
a long table in the back room under the "Wall of WAMM," a collection 
of photos of all the 191 members who have died. The men and women are 
patiently assembling near-uniform joints with cigarette rollers, 
ZigZag rolling papers and a little spit. They chop the marijuana up 
with scissors and chatter loudly. They are both patients and 
caregivers, some of whom have their wheelchairs pulled up to the table.

"This is therapy," says Diana Poppay, talking loudly over the others, 
who then mm-hmm in agreement. "We forget about our little this and 
little that."

"Have you guys had smoke yet?" asks Valerie, coming in to the room. 
"Have you taken a break?"

The voices in the room rise as one roller stops and lights up a joint 
at the head of the table. The rolling club has the air of a revival 
church, praising WAMM and praising marijuana. The members sprinkle 
three-quarters of a gram into the rolling paper, twist it around 
inside the roller and pop out joints the size of cigarettes, which 
are packaged in bags of seven--one for each day of the week. The 
rollers usually produce about 250 joints in one Friday session.

"I have some good news, everybody," says Valerie, struggling to get 
everyone's attention. "We found out we have a little more medicine 
than we thought. We thought we were going to run out."

After carefully counting out all the incoming donations of marijuana, 
it turns out that at the close of the growing season, the WAMM 
members will have enough pot to make it through the winter. WAMM, 
like the Corrals, hovers in a near-constant state of uncertainty, 
with only enough financing to predict on a month-to-month basis how 
much longer it can maintain its operations, so the news is a huge 
relief. With the pared-down garden, it was essential that the members 
grow for themselves and donate back to the collective for WAMM to 
function as it has for 12 years.

"These are all donations," says Valerie, pulling zip bags of bud out 
of a paper sack. "This member gave back more than half of what she grew."

Earlier in the growing season, Valerie decided to run a little social 
experiment. "I asked WAMM members, 'Hey, guys, you want to come up 
and help me with the garden?' They said, 'Well, is there pot?' And I 
said no. You know, just to see," she says. "And they said, 'Nahhh.' 
And I went ... 'OK.'"

There is real disappointment in her eyes when Valerie tells this 
story. If the land is lost, she will no longer be providing the bulk 
of the pot. She says she fibbed to the members in order to encourage 
them to grow for themselves and the collective, but also, it seems, 
out of insecurity over the true generous spirit of the WAMM members. 
After 15 years dedicatedly growing for others--some estimates say she 
and Michael have given away about $20 million worth of 
marijuana--Valerie has reason to be looking for some reassurance. 
It's not enough to distribute marijuana to the ailing poor; Valerie 
desperately wants WAMM to be a community. But without the garden, 
without joint-rolling Fridays and fall harvest, Valerie is trying to 
figure out what her place is and how much time she can continue to 
dedicate to WAMM. "I'm tired and I take care of my friends when 
they're dying and I'm ill," she says. "Facing the loss of this land, 
I need to know, What should I do in the future? What kind of 
investment should I make?"

The Big Bust

In the life of the WAMM garden there are two eras: before and after 
the DEA raid.

It's not hard to imagine the way things looked to DEA agents six 
years ago as they drove quietly up the road to the Corrals' place in 
the dark--the winding lane through the trees makes the place seem 
clandestine and the people who would choose to live there guilty by 
association. So when Valerie and Michael were awakened early on Sept. 
5, 2002, by 30 agents in full gear who'd come to arrest them and 
ravage the pot garden's crop, it was not a shock, but it did change 
WAMM and the garden for good. The agents chopped down 167 plants that 
morning, stripping the garden to a skeleton of arbors and deer netting.

What happened next became a part of Santa Cruz lore. The city banded 
together with the Corrals and WAMM in a show of support for the club, 
Prop. 215 and the local ordinances that permit the use and growth of 
medical marijuana. On Sept. 17, 2002, the mayor, the City Council, 
the county Board of Supervisors and former Santa Cruz mayors gathered 
at City Hall with WAMM to publicly distribute medical marijuana in an 
act that would come to define Santa Cruz quirk. "Making medical 
marijuana available is an act of common sense and compassion. ... I'm 
standing with the Corrals," wrote Mayor Christopher Krohn in an Op-Ed 
in The New York Times.

"That's the tenor of this community," says Valerie with pride. "The 
government needs to cross out Santa Cruz on their list."

In 2003, Valerie pursued a lawsuit naming former Attorney General 
John Ashcroft and John B. Brown III, the former administrator of the 
DEA, as defendants, and was joined by six WAMM members, WAMM itself 
and both the city and county of Santa Cruz as plaintiffs. Although no 
charges against the Corrals were ever filed, the lawsuit could have 
major implications for the future of medical marijuana,

"We think this was an attempt to improperly hijack our state's right 
to make laws like this," says attorney Rice, who is representing the 
county. "There are so many good people in the community and 
supporters in the medical community and in our local 
government--what's happening to WAMM is a terrible, sad situation, 
but it's not going to mean that medical marijuana is not going to be 
as viable here as before."

While impending court decisions could buoy the medical marijuana 
cause, in Valerie's case, she is in essence fighting to grow in a 
garden that in a matter of months may not be hers anymore. She will 
continue to fight, but that fight will change when the Corral name is 
taken off the deed.

Will Power

Michael Corral has already moved off the land. He left it and his 
30-year marriage to Valerie two years ago, though they have not 
divorced. Michael, an athletic man who shaves his head bald, his 
structured good looks punctuated by the two dark slashes of his 
eyebrows, moved in with roommates in a house outside of the Santa 
Cruz Gardens in the Aptos hills. It's where he does much of his 
prepping as an expert witness for the defense in marijuana cases. 
Though the house has a garden and a bevy of potted plants, it's 
definitely city living compared to the land.

Michael is a pithy man who watches what he says very carefully, so 
he'll only admit that the departure from the land was "difficult." 
But the differences between him and Valerie make it so that his 
exodus will be much different from hers. Michael has been the 
pragmatist, Valerie the dreamer when it comes to dealing with the 
impending sale. It seems a typical position for Michael.

"The last year my father was alive, my mother and I took care of him, 
and he looked good. But I kept telling my mother, 'Mom, he can go at 
any time.' It kept her from going to that space where, 'Oh, 
everything is fine now.' When it really isn't," he explains. "And 
that's what I did with the land. I knew that we weren't going to be 
able to keep it." Valerie, on the other hand, has started buying 
lottery tickets for the first time in her life.

For Michael, the beginning of the end came when Peter Leith, whom the 
Corrals considered a partner, died in 2001. Zoning laws had proven 
prohibitive to his plans to build a Buddhist sanctuary, and the 
investors had become interested in a different piece of property in 
New York state. Nevertheless, the agreement stood between Leith and 
the Corrals that they would inherit an additional 20 percent of the 
106-acre parcel upon his death, and be able to continue to stay on 
the property.

But as Leith was dying in his native England, his attorneys saw that 
to save the estate money they would have to dramatically trim the 
amount of things being left in the will--including the promise made 
to the Corrals. "It was a very creative estate plan at Mike and 
Valerie's expense," says Jane Becker, a tax attorney the Corrals 
retained when the IRS audited them for unclaimed income while living 
and working for Leith. "There was very little paper trail. They went on trust."

Within a short time after the death, Michael and Valerie discovered 
they'd been left a fraction of the joint interest, and that the heirs 
and Buddhist guru Sogyal Rinpoche's organization wanted to sell. The 
Corrals took out a loan that has sunk them close to $1 million in 
debt, and bought out the other owners in 2004. It was theirs, but 
this was not a happy acquisition for Michael. "We were just buying 
time," he says. "The amount of money we are making isn't enough for 
us to be able to pay off or even come close to paying off this loan."

Without the land and their deal with Leith, the life Michael had 
envisioned for himself had utterly changed, seemingly overnight.

"We had set up our lives so that we were all set. We didn't need to 
make a lot of money," says Michael. "So we both dropped out of the 
job markets and all of that has flown by us, so neither one of us are 
qualified for new jobs out there." The arrangement had essentially 
permitted them the time and energy to start WAMM; now that time off 
began to look like a liability.

Michael predicted they could hold on to the land for two years, 
making payments as best they could from the modest $2,500 monthly 
stipend they get from WAMM, but they've been able to stretch it out 
to 4 1/2 years. The IRS audit sucked another $100,000 out of their 
savings, and though the Corrals can still conceivably continue to 
make payments for another year and a half, Michael decided to put the 
land up for sale this past summer when he realized they were going to 
have to borrow more on their line of credit and start selling 
retirement assets. "We have no savings left. We're basically living 
month to month," he says.

In late October, Michael finally heard about his counteroffer. The 
buyer had decided to pass on the property, and the Corrals are back 
to square one. Michael decided to list the property with a real 
estate agent and Valerie decided to start renting Peter Leith's empty 
house. So while there's no longer an impending move-out date for 
Valerie, the future remains uncertain.

Leap of Faith

On Oct. 28, at Viking Hall, WAMM is holding its annual Halloween 
party and "day of the dead" celebration. Besides eating, drinking and 
dispensing each member's weekly allotment of marijuana, Valerie has 
filled her Volvo with good-sized, smooth rocks for the members to 
paint. There are 191 stones, one for each of the WAMM members who has 
died, and Valerie has a typed list for members to pick from. The 
mood, one of the members says, is much more solemn than most 
Halloween parties. The task is heavy, as is the timing of it--the 
stones are to be placed at the small graveyard Valerie created on the 
land, and there's no saying how much longer WAMM members will have 
access to it.

Michael calls the cemetery "boot hill" and Valerie calls it "the 
jumping-off point." Under the boughs of a 300-year-old oak tree, 
there's a collection of memorials and trinkets to 26 people, most of 
them WAMM members who have died and asked that their ashes be brought 
up to the land. There are some mason jars, half of a surf board, 
blanched from sun exposure, candles and prayer tiles, strewn somewhat 
haphazardly in the yellow grass since marauding pigs tore through it 
looking for mushrooms and roots.

In addition to both Valerie and Michael's fathers, the cemetery has 
become the final stop for the ashes of some important names. A 
portion of Dr. Timothy Leary's ashes are there, as are his ex-wife 
Rosemary Leary's, who lived and died in Aptos after coming out of 
hiding. Valerie says she purposely placed author Nina Graboi's ashes 
in between them, "to keep the peace." Peter Leith is buried with a 
small Buddhist shrine. Harold Allen, the second person to call the 
Corrals for help back in the '90s, is here. Michael Chelosky, who's 
named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is there, as is Lucy Garcia, a 
local artist whose 17-year-old daughter Shayna has become Valerie's 
adopted daughter. This is where Valerie had hoped to be buried. "They 
are my welcome guests here," says Valerie. "Maybe I'll drop my bones 
up at the oak tree with my friends. Who can say?"

As Valerie, dressed in a bee costume, flits around the room making 
sure everyone has what they need, someone is passing around a poster 
of a toddler picking at a wedgie, and all the members are signing it. 
The poster is a surprise for Valerie. "You know, because she's very 
picky-picky," says Jackie Russell, who's dressed as a marijuana 
fairy."We did it to make her feel better. The land has been a real 
upset," says her husband, Jared Russell. "It can feel like the whole 
world is crumbling."

If that world is truly crumbling, Valerie is not ready to fully 
accept it. It's not denial, exactly, but she has not really made 
plans about where she will go next. She still maintains hope that a 
rescuer, some millionaire, will drop out of the sky, pay the debts 
and keep WAMM running for years to come. She hopes this investor, or 
maybe the lottery, will allow her to stay on the land, continue to 
grow and, indeed, drop her bones at the jumping-off point. But she 
has begun to do small things: give things away, pack her hat 
collection and her grandma's crocheting that she keeps in the same 
room where the marijuana hangs from the rafters to dry.

In the meantime, she says she tries to remain in the present, enjoy 
her view, eat the grapes and the butternut squash she planted, smoke 
the pot she grew and feed the feral cats who wander in and out of her 
doors. "Will I be sad to leave it? Utterly. But we leave everything 
in this life," she says. "I sit with people and discuss with them and 
listen to them speak about losing everything, including their lives, 
and realize the magnitude of that is great.

"I would have to say this is a practice." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake