Pubdate: Sun, 19 Sep 2010
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2010 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


By his count, Don Ivey, 56, should have been dead six times by now.

The artisan and former competitive in-line skater survived both a 
stabbing and a scuba diving accident as a young man. Fifteen years 
ago, he was diagnosed with AIDS and hepatitis C. Five years ago, he 
crashed a motorcycle, landing facedown, partially paralyzed, in an ocean bay.

Recently, just 30 days removed from his second emergency room visit 
for internal bleeding and vomiting blood, Ivey walked up a terraced 
marijuana garden that is a medicinal and spiritual refuge for the 
sick, injured and dying.

Rising above rows of English lavender and shielded by a 
crescent-shaped ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the pot garden for 
the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana is an icon in the history 
of the California marijuana movement.

The garden survives despite a 2002 raid  and seizure of the crop  by 
heavily armed federal agents. It thrives amid an aura of death, as 
members reap the harvest while grieving for those who succumb to 
terminal illnesses.

"Love grows here," Ivey said, plucking unwanted yellowish leaves from 
the pot plants and stuffing them into his paralyzed hand, permanently 
balled into a fist. "This is not a pot club. This is a group of 
people who are doing it for each other, for real compassion."

Organized as a cannabis-growing commune, WAMM planted its garden 
three years before California voters approved Proposition 215, the 
1996 law that legalized marijuana for medical use. Its members, 
including cancer, AIDS and other seriously ill patients, sow, harvest 
and share the crop.

Founders Mike Corral, 60, and his wife, Valerie, 58, started growing 
marijuana to relieve seizures Valerie began to suffer after a car 
accident. They thought their simple garden  and its authentic 
marijuana-growing collective  would become the model for medical 
cultivation and distribution.

Instead, medical marijuana in California has boomed with 
pseudo-retail "collectives" peddling designer cannabis strains and 
handling millions of dollars in transactions. A $1 billion dispensary 
trade serves a vast range of marijuana users  and ailments generally 
far less serious than the life-altering challenges at WAMM.

"I think we were naive to think that this wouldn't happen. This is 
America. Capitalism reigns supreme," Mike Corral said. "We're a 
socialist organization trying to exist in a capitalist world."

Death a constant presence

California voters are poised to vote on a November initiative to 
legalize marijuana for recreational use. But WAMM members say they 
will continue to operate as always, no matter the outcome.

The group's 225 members hold meetings to distribute their marijuana 
based on medical need and ability to pay. In a "design for dying" 
program, they organize bedside vigils and assistance for those in 
their final days of life.

Since its inception, 223 members have died from illnesses or medical 
conditions whose symptoms they had alleviated with marijuana.

High above the garden, a surfboard, urns, quartz rocks and Buddhist 
figures mark buried ashes of 17 members. Others are commemorated on 
painted rocks nearby  or in hundreds of photographs that fill walls 
of the collective's offices in downtown Santa Cruz.

"Death is a daily part of life in WAMM," said Sheri Paris, a former 
UC Santa Cruz creative writing professor and WAMM member now disabled 
with a brain condition.

"People who talk about this as a pretext to get high should look at 
the pictures on the wall," she said, puffing on a marijuana cigarette 
in the WAMM office, a regimen she says quells her seizures. "The 
government would have you think that people are coming here for 
hangnails. If they're faking it, they're faking it to the point of dying."

WAMM's medical adviser, Santa Cruz physician Dr. Arnold Leff, is a 
former deputy director of the White House office of drug abuse under 
President Richard Nixon. He began treating HIV and AIDS patients in 
1985, and soon recommended marijuana to ease their anxiety, nausea 
and pain from nerve damage.

He says marijuana isn't an appropriate remedy for everyone. But he 
said: "You take terminally ill people and you put them in this 
environment and the bottom line is they feel better and live longer."

Up in the garden, Don Ivey penned his name on a nursery tag for a 
flowering marijuana plant he put in the ground months ago with a 
shovel he can cradle with but one arm.

"It has given my life purpose," he said. "If you don't have purpose, 
you start listening to that communication between your ears that it 
is all gloom and doom and you're going to die. Now I look forward to 
every day I'm alive. And I've always wanted to be a pot grower."

DEA raid leads to standoff

Law enforcement authorities weren't eager to accept WAMM's marijuana garden.

Shortly before the Corrals established the collective, Santa Cruz 
County deputies arrested the couple for illegal cultivation over five 
plants they were growing for Valerie's seizures. She filed 
California's first known "medical necessity" defense for marijuana. 
The district attorney ultimately refused to prosecute.

But on Sept. 5, 2002, a decade after 77 percent of voters in liberal 
Santa Cruz County approved a local medical marijuana initiative and 
nearly six years after Californians approved Proposition 215, dozens 
of DEA agents swooped in on the WAMM site.

In the widely publicized incident, agents rousted sleeping medical 
marijuana patients from houses and detained and handcuffed Mike and 
Valerie Corral at gunpoint. With chain saws, they cut down 167 
harvest-ready plants and packed up the crop.

Korean War veteran and former Santa Cruz clothing manufacturer Harold 
"Hal" Margolin, then 70, went to the scene. The heart patient, who 
used the marijuana for pain after back surgery left him nearly 
crippled, remembers weeping.

"They had come with a heavy hand to show us that we were not going to 
be able to do this. And they were teaching us a lesson," he said.

DEA agents, enforcing federal laws against marijuana cultivation, 
ordered Margolin and other WAMM members to retreat. They did  but 
then chained and padlocked a gate at the entrance to the property, 
trapping the authorities inside.

A tense standoff played out before a swarm of media. WAMM followers 
refused to allow the government convoy and U-Hauls of seized pot to 
leave until receiving word on the fate of Mike and Valerie Corral. 
 From a San Jose federal detention facility, Valerie Corral told the 
WAMM members to let the agents leave.

Federal prosecutors filed no charges. But the raid stirred a 
political fury and newfound sympathy for the medical marijuana movement.

"I thought the DEA was out of its mind," said former state 
Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who a year later authored state 
legislation implementing guidelines to allow marijuana cultivation 
and distribution under Proposition 215. "We had wars going on and 
violent crime. And they were raiding people in pain."

The city and county of Santa Cruz joined a WAMM lawsuit to protect 
its right to cultivate marijuana. In 2004, U.S. District Judge Jeremy 
Fogel issued an injunction barring federal incursions on the WAMM site.

Late last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the U.S. 
Justice Department would no longer target legal medical marijuana 
operations in states permitting medicinal use. This January, WAMM 
settled its lawsuit against the government with an agreement to 
refile the case if it is targeted again.

Diverse range of patients

In the eight years since the raid, Margolin, now 78, had a heart 
attack  his second  and was diagnosed with leukemia. His injured back 
gradually moved him from "a cane to a walker to a wheelchair."

He took frequent, daily puffs of marijuana, calculating just enough, 
he said, to reduce his pain without feeling overly impaired. As his 
health deteriorated, he began cultivating pot at home to supply other 
collective members.

"The first year, they said, 'Don't bother.' It wasn't any good," he 
said. "The second year, the pot was pretty damn good. I learned how 
to do it. I talked to the plants  every day."

At one recent WAMM members meeting, patients including a blind woman 
with a guide dog and several people in wheelchairs showed up to get 
their medicine  dried marijuana packed in plastic bags and placed in 
manila envelopes.

Seth Prettol, 30, a Modesto resident and San Jose State University 
engineering student paralyzed in a fall from a rope swing near 
Yosemite, made it to the meeting after a long absence. He used to 
work in the garden, grinding marijuana leaves in his wheelchair for 
use in skin creams said to have anti-inflammatory properties and 
liquid elixirs touted as an alternative to smoking.

He was cheered as he rolled into the room. But he was tense with 
muscle spasms. Danny Rodriques, 61, an AIDS patient and former San 
Francisco barkeep, massaged Prettol's shoulders.

The members discussed a "WAMMfest" community festival to raise money 
for the group, which operates on an annual budget of $165,000.

Mike Corral gave the weekly garden report. "The garden is beautiful," he said.

WAMM now 'my family'

The next Thursday morning, former auto detailer Jose Valencia, 46, a 
lymphoma patient, and ex-Amador County paramedic Pete Herzog, 50, who 
has Lyme disease, rose early to cut weeds and brush from the mountain 
grave sites of WAMM members.

Below, amid wafting marijuana smoke, others readied for shifts in the 
garden in a work room brimming with freshly painted memorial stones.

One rock was for Maria Lucinda "Lucy" Garcia, a former Santa Cruz 
hairdresser and make-up artist who came to WAMM dying from ovarian 
cancer. She became a fixture in the garden but was uncomfortable 
about the pot she smoked to alleviate her nausea.

"She never smoked in front of her daughter," Valerie Corral said. 
"She was very clear in delineating the lines."

When Garcia died, WAMM members dressed her in a long red gown. 
Valerie Corral did her hair and nails. At Garcia's request, Corral 
adopted her daughter, Shana Conti, now 19.

Now, Hal Margolin says his moment is near. His leukemia has advanced 
to a terminal stage.

He is in an acute care unit at Santa Cruz's Dominican Hospital for a 
broken hip. He's being visited by his wife and children and deluged 
with cards from WAMM members preparing to help him upon his release 
from the hospital.

"My family is called WAMM," Margolin said. "I don't know if it will 
go down in history or not. But if it does, the story will be that we 
did it the right way."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart