The Brutal War on Medical Marijuana
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The war on drugs is making a comeback -- with a vengeance. Six days short of the Sept.11 anniversary, D.E.A. agents put federal tax dollars to work by raiding the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (better known as WAMM), a Santa Cruz County, Calif.-based cooperative and one of the most successful medicinal marijuana programs in the nation.
At 7 a.m., Sept. 5, a dozen camouflage-clad agents showed up at the Davenport home of Valerie and Michael Corral, who founded WAMM a decade ago. Pointing their weapons, the agents told wheelchair-bound WAMM member Suzanne Pfeil to stand up. "I can't stand up. I told them I was sorry," said Pfeil, who suffers from post-polio syndrome.
DEA agents then arrested a pajama-clad Valerie Corral, along with her husband Michael.
According to DEA spokesman Richard Meyer, the Corrals were arrested and taken into custody in San Jose on federal charges of intent to distribute marijuana, but by mid-afternoon they had been released, with the U.S. Attorney's office declining to file charges.
Their release ended a three-hour standoff between 30 WAMM members and supporters and the Drug Enforcement Agency agents. Bearing placards announcing "Warning: Federal Crime in Process" and "Marijuana is Medicine," outraged WAMMers blockaded the dirt road that leads to the Corrals property in the hills near Davenport.
Destroying WAMM's 2002 crop took the DEA under an hour, as clocked by a WAMM security camera that captured chainsaw-wielding agents mowing down 130 pungently aromatic plants, which moments before stood 6-8 ft tall and only weeks away from being harvested.
But leaving the property proved more complex. When these same agents realized they were hostage to an imminent confrontation, they called the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's office, which has worked closely with the Corrals to make sure the WAMM operation remains within state law.
Summoned to the scene around 2 p.m., a reluctant-looking Sgt. Terri Moore cut through a chain padlock and arranged for the safe passage of the agents, who left in a cavalcade of SUVs and U-Haul trucks once Valerie Corral told WAMM member and security chief Daniel Rodriguez to let them through.
Still, the battle wasn't over yet.
"Shame on You!" shouted WAMM members as the agents drove past, expressions masked by tinted windows
"The whole thing is an outrageous joke, an act of violence under guise of the law, theft at the federal level, war against the people of California, who voted to have this medicine, which they are stealing, " said Joe Wouk, as the agents drove away.
WAMM was born out of founder Valerie Corral's efforts to alleviate her own epilepsy seizures, which began soon after she suffered a head injury in a car accident three decades ago. In 1974, Coral discovered marijuana was far more effective than pharmaceuticals, and for the next 18 years she and her husband cultivated a few plants each year to supply themselves and their friends.
In 1992, they were arrested twice for cultivation -- and both times they cited their right to grow marijuana for medical use as a defense. Valerie Corral was instrumental in drafting California's Proposition 215, whose 1996 passage allowed patients and their caregivers to grow pot for medicinal purposes.
Prop. 215's passage also led to the birth of various "pot clubs," which charged their members for services and products, often for as much or more than the going street value. But WAMM remains a collective in which members volunteer time in exchange for marijuana and hospice-style services.
As one WAMM-member put it, "WAMM is a club people are literally dying to get into. Many of us have AIDS and cancer. 40 members passed to the other side this year."
Since the passage of Proposition 215, many pot clubs have been shut down, including several in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thursday's raid was the latest round in an escalating tug of war between local and federal authorities.
In addition to California, 7 other states -- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington -- allow the cultivation of medical marijuana. But U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft maintains that Proposition 215 and other such measures violate federal drug law.
After the raid, members of the cooperative and media drove up to the farm that sits on a sun-soaked southerly-facing ridge. But though the farm has an ocean view, the vista was marred by the ravaged scene that greeted them.
Framed by a "Love Grows Here" sign, the once flourishing garden had been reduced to a mess of stumps and tangled wire, on which the occasional leaf hung rag-like -- a sight that spurred some into action and others to tears.
"This was such a beautiful place. What can you say, but fuck? I remember watering this plant," said Sheri Paris, as she salvaged some crushed leaves. "I sincerely believe some of our members are going to be suicidal. They won't be able to get the medicine they need to deal with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and the unbearable muscle seizures that quadriplegics suffer."
Meanwhile a sobbing Diana Dodson wanted to know why the DEA is terrorizing sick people. "We've lost 40 members this year and that number will increase because of this raid," said Dodson, who has AIDS.
Dale Gieringer, who is California coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, noted that since Sept. 11, 25 people have been busted for medical marijuana in California, but only one for terrorism.
Danny Rodriguez said his partner, who also does WAMM security, was handcuffed and held for an hour after he followed the D.E.A. agents to the farm at the start of the early morning raid. "It kills me to think Americans are doing this to other Americans, " said Rodriguez, who also has AIDS.
"(D)ead members are buried here. They have desecrated a sacred spot in many ways," said Deb Silverknight, a retired nurse and self-described black Cherokee priestess.
Sitting in a chair amid the carnage, Ralph Trueblood said, "Maybe this will be the turning point in the federal war on marijuana. Let's all hope and pray this is, because the feds have gone too far. We are all emotional, crying, laughing, in disbelief. For nine years, our members have been able to get their medicine. Now that's interrupted. I believe there will be a great outpouring of public sympathy."
Also grieving in the garden was Harry Boyle, 24, and his caregiver and fiancee, Courtney Connolly. Connolly says Boyle's experience has changed her perspective on marijuana. "I used to be anti all drugs and I don't smoke at all, but I see how much it helps him and all the people here. They can sleep, eat, function, and be in a good mood," she said.
Boyle, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, says smoking helps him cope with headaches and the stress of chemotherapy. "I was unable to even keep down the anti-nausea pills," says Boyle, who dropped from 200 lb. to 160 lb. before he joined WAMM.
While Jean Hanamoto described the scene as a tragedy, her husband George, who is one of the chief gardeners, tried to look at the bright side. "Maybe this will be a shot in the arm for volunteerism," he said. "Nothing pulls people together like getting their shit messed with!"
And the arrival of the freshly liberated Corrals helped turn the mood in the garden from a wake to a celebration. With wind chimes tinkling in the background, Valerie Corral, still dressed in her pajamas, stood in the middle of the plot, holding hands with husband Michael and other collective members. She vowed that WAMM will become stronger than ever before.
"It feels as though this garden has been desecrated, there's not a story about this garden that does not intersect with our lives. But we have something remarkable here, which they can never take away," Corral told the group, as marijuana smoke drifted in the air.
"What we are doing is so powerful, so true, nothing the Feds can do to us can change that truth," she said. "You have to stand up against injustice in all its forms."
For more info, contact WAMM at www.wamm.org.
Sarah Phelan is the News Editor at Metro Santa Cruz.