The Right to Feel Better

The medical marijuana debate is one I?ve always had a difficult time wrapping my head around. It seems, a priori , to be a non-issue. How is it possible that the government has no problem with doctors prescribing powerful drugs like percocet, vicodan, oxycontin, and morphine for folks to take home, but objects to doctors granting permission for very sick patients to grow and smoke a little dope -- even after states vote to allow it?

So, when I heard Valerie Corral was coming to town, I couldn?t wait to speak with her. She is a hero to many people who feel that smoking marijuana can cure their symptoms in ways that pharmaceuticals cannot. As a sufferer of epilepsy -- and someone who self-prescribed her homegrown marijuana when she found that it kept her seizures in check -- Corral was the first person to be recognized under California?s Prop 215 Compassionate Use Act as an official medical marijuana patient.

But that was just her first step. Corral, with husband Mike, went on to found the Wo/Men?s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a collective that -- unlike buyers? clubs that sell marijuana at market prices -- supplies medical marijuana to patients who need it, in return for their help in producing it and participation in the alliance.

Lately, however, things have gotten tough for the successful program. Though only about 100 sick people participate, and though all of them have debilitating conditions like cancer, AIDS, paralysis, and arthritis, the Justice Department, under orders from John Ashcroft, swept in and destroyed WAMM?s garden. Think about that. They ignored the intent of a California state law, approved by an overwhelming majority of voters, so that they could destroy a quantity of medicine that could have helped hundreds of people at virtually no cost.

In exchange, Ashcroft offers expensive drugs supplied by the pharmaceutical industry, a profit-driven enterprise.

Corral?s community, including the mayor, chief of police, sheriff, and district attorney for Santa Cruz, California, have rallied around her (even

hosting what amounted to a city-sponsored medical marijuana event). But that won?t bring her crop back.

Speaking with her on the eve of her appearance at the Maine Women?s Studies Consortium Conference, it was good to hear her in high spirits and passionate about making further progress.

Phoenix: You?re coming to Maine to speak at the Women?s Studies Conference, but you?ve made your notoriety from running the Wo/Men?s Alliance for Medical Marijuana. I want to explore the medical marijuana issues and the connection to women?s issues, but let?s start with medical marijuana. We have here in Maine, as you know well, a medical marijuana law, but we don?t yet have a distribution system set up, and that?s what we?ve been struggling with. How have you been successful in distributing medical marijuana and what do you think works in the system that you?ve set up that other states, like ours, might be able to emulate?

Valerie Corral: What I did, essentially, is just bring patients together in a collective, and approached city and county officials, including law enforcement, and worked pretty steadily with them.

This also included, for some six years, being a member of the alcohol and drug abuse commission, so that, in the early days, I?d be able to better understand what fears would be raised by those who had issues with the larger issue of abuse. I was able to answer some of those questions, and also to make peace between us, to denote the difference between medicine and drug abuse.

But, in the development of this collective, I came to realize, of course, the bigger you are, the bigger the target to the federal government. But, also, the bigger you are the more cumulative power you have to address accountability, which I feel, for this issue, is extremely important.

The accountability is based primarily on not seeking to profit from the work, or from people?s illnesses. That?s an unusual approach in a nation that spends a lot of money trying to be well when we?re sick.

Q: The way I understand it is that?s it?s kind of a time-share arrangement, where people contribute a certain amount of time and energy and, in return, they receive medical marijuana.

A: Well, it?s a little bit more broad than that because people have differing degrees of disability. Someone who might come into our office paralyzed from the neck down ? quadriplegic ? from a surfing accident, he?s not going to be able to do a lot of physical labor, perhaps.

So what we do, what we ask ? it?s a very basic principle ? is to give what you can and take only what you need. So it isn?t exactly a time-share agreement, where they have to give a certain amount to get what they need, only that their intention is to be part of the alliance, in giving what they can, in reviewing what the possibilities are for what they have to offer, be it money, time, energy, or a caregiver.

So, it?s a broad design to meet the needs of as many people in our area who find themselves facing imminent death or very serious, debilitating illness.

THE PHARMACIST: Valerie Corral shuns the money-making role of a dealer. Q: Is the size of your collective limited by how much marijuana you can produce?

A: Yes. My suggestion to most communities is smaller collectives. The reason that I suggest that is because I think people working together is extremely important for people who are seriously ill because your community changes when you find yourself ill.

You know, the surfing community changes when you?re no longer able to go surfing. You lose your friends. Not because they don?t love you, but because they?re busy carrying on their normal lives.

So, I think what?s important to note that?s so valuable in our community is the interdependence. We notice if people are hungry, if people are losing their homes. Seven of our members have become homeless, simply because they didn?t have enough money to fight their illness, pay their rent, and stay in their home. So, we?ve hooked people up with other places.

We do a lot of in-home care when people are facing death and they don?t want to be in a nursing home. We try to keep people in their homes, we try to keep one another fed, we have weekly support groups in our office in town. It?s quite important to recognize that one of the elemental pieces of our organization is a commitment to being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Q: Did you start out simply growing medicine for people and then realize that just growing marijuana doesn?t really solve the problem?

A: Yes I did, actually. The experience has certainly been enlightening, or an awakening, I should say. There are situations that I might never have guessed would arise. But, before I ever really got into this work, and I just grew marijuana for myself, 18 of my friends and family members had died. Which is kind of unusual. I mean, I was 40 years old at that time.

I found that the need was always there for people to be in camaraderie with each other. And to simply notice what?s going on in one another?s lives, and to have that social connection.

You might feel very isolated being the only man in the room that?s bald from chemotherapy if you have prostate cancer, but you come in to WAMM and you look around and there are so many people in there that know exactly what you?ve been through. They recognize the pain and just the dreariness of a day, how hard it can be to get through it. That kind of experience aligns people, but it also gives folks an opportunity to step outside of their own experience and share somebody else?s.

When I first started, I didn?t know how huge it could be.

Q: Speaking of huge . . . you were talking about some of the problems that arose as you got bigger and bigger.

A: Well, that did, and does, happen. The federal government found out about us, but they had known about us for a long time. So, I don?t think that it?s something that we didn?t expect.

I just felt that, since we?re so clean and above reproach because we don?t sell marijuana, that they would stay away from us because we would be a nightmare. But for this federal government, nothing is a nightmare, except, perhaps, themselves. And they did come after us, but it hasn?t stopped us.

We still meet on a weekly basis, and we still have our medicine, and we don?t have our garden ? so things will be different next year ? but we imagine that we?ll be able to somehow make it through it. We don?t see any reason why not.

So, consequently, one of our most effective avenues will be to divest toward smaller gardens grown to serve the whole, but with fewer attendants.

Q: You?ll decentralize?

A: Mmm, hmm. You do what you can. If they make you back down from one approach, then you find another. That?s something we?ve always done. For instance, I?ve always changed the language. Distribution?s against the law, so we don?t distribute, we supply. Whatever they need, it?s all semantics.

Q: But the local community and even the local government and law enforcement officials have been very supportive haven?t they?

A: Yes, extremely.

Q: They helped you pass out medical marijuana on the steps of City Hall, right?

A: Well, they didn?t pass it out, we did. But they stood by as we carried out one of our weekly meetings.

Q: How does that feel, to be getting such mixed messages from two different arms of the government?

A: I?ve always felt that I was light years away from the federal government, that they were just some shadow government where I don?t really know who they are, and they don?t really know who we are, and that, in fact, we probably never would get direct support from them. You know how the federal government is, they?re the last to respond, and only when they feel totally and completely safe.

Take Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who are senators from California. Now, the medical marijuana issue got more votes than either of them did, by far. Now, do you think they have the wisdom to recognize that medical marijuana is sensible? No, they don?t, because they?re fearful, they?re afraid. I guess they?re afraid that someone will use that against them, but, what happens is that it pushes people toward voting Green. You know, it just really does. And we have to show them that, we?ve really got to shake up DC.

Q: y'bviously, it?s going to be hard to make any headway while there is a Bush/Ashcroft administration in power, but, if there were to be a Democratic switchover in 2004, do you think there?s any sentiment on the national level for medical marijuana, or, at least, to not pull doctors? licenses for going along with state laws?

A: Yes, I do. Which is not to say that the Democrats have been great friends. But, importantly, we have to recognize that this current administration has been the enemy of sick and dying people. I think that?s hugely important to recognize. Whereas the former administration didn?t choose to be so ? how can I say this ? vile.

You know, it?s tyranny. It?s simple. When a government does not respect the will of the people, and the democratic process, in a supposedly democratic society, then that?s tyranny. They?ve certainly not been paying attention. And if they have been paying attention, it?s only to the locations of the gardens of sick and dying people.

And they tell us they?re worried about our health, that they?re concerned about our health, but they don?t offer us health care. It?s just more rhetoric.

They think we just want to feel better and, guess what, we do.

Q: Heaven forbid, right?

A: Yeah, I mean, it?s not a big shock. People who are sick just want to feel better. And, they sell us a myriad of pills just to achieve that end. But, I think because marijuana?s free, they insist that it?s not a good medicine.

Q: Okay, but you?re coming to town to speak at a women?s studies conference. When does medical marijuana go from being a people?s issue to being more of a women?s issue?

A: It?s interesting. When I began this outreach organization, I was working with mostly men, and women were more cloistered or hidden about their marijuana use, less willing to be noticed for it. But that?s really changed in the last 10 years.

One of the things that makes it a women?s issue is that women are often the ones by the bedside of those that are dying. They?re preparing the food, doing a lot of the work. So, as a women?s issue, it probably relates first from a care-giver point of view. They don?t like to see the people they?re caring for suffer, and marijuana can make it stop.

But in a lot of cases, especially here in Santa Cruz, where there?s an exceptionally high rate of breast cancer, there are more and more women who are willing either to begin using marijuana or who have actually come out about their use, where they had not done so before.

And, often, women are the caretakers of their children, so they?re concerned about crossing that boundary where using marijuana might get them into hot water and they might lose their children.

Q: Do you think they also have fears about sending a bad message about drug use to their young children?

A: I think that happens in families a lot. I know that many of the women with whom I work have either kept it a secret or have begun this really extensive educational outreach in their own homes whereby they enforce the understanding that the marijuana that they smoke is really a medicine. It?s important that it be separated from the recreational aspect ? that, as an adult, they?re really making this distinction. It?s in the medicine cabinet and, ?no, you can?t take it.?

I think it?s a human issue, and I?m not saying that it appeals more to women to be humanitarian, but often times that appears to be so. And, it turns out that I?m a woman, and I started this. I guess most dealers are men, and WAMM is really contrary to the concept of dealing and opening up buyers? clubs. This is a vastly alternative approach.

A lot of people must think that I?m crazy. I must be the only one in the world who can?t make money off marijuana.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at


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