LA CityBeat

The Spirit of Tommy Chong

For Tommy Chong to get straight, he's got to go to God. Not God as envisioned by, say, Jerry Falwell, not the God of hellfire, but the omniscient source of goodness and, yes, jokes. He's cultivated a meditative practice over the years of smash hit movies, Grammy-winning comedy albums, and woozy influence over decades of pop culture as half of the comedy duo Cheech & Chong. So when he was busted in 2003 for selling Tommy Chong bongs and sentenced to nine months in the federal penitentiary at Taft, California, one of the items he brought with him was the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes.

While in prison, he started ruminating on life's lessons, and the result was his new book, "The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint." This book is a breezy vision of the man's essential "Chongness," as he writes not some preachy life lessons but about a life lived: growing up rough as the mixed-race child of a Chinese father and a Scottish-Irish mother in Western Canada; learning to tango with his wife, Shelby; and using his gentleness and wit to thrive in lock-up. "I met the warden one day. I swear to God, I've met fans but he was one of the biggest fans ever," says Chong. "He says, 'Are they treating you OK?' He turned out to be a really sweet guy."

DEAN KUIPERS: Each chapter leaf in the book starts with a hexagram from the I Ching.

TOMMY CHONG: I went through the I Ching and just picked out a heading that would best suit the chapter. And the I Ching -- I was just doing it -- it's three lines on top, three lines below. And they're either broken or straight. And it's based on an ancient book called the Book of Changes. You throw them -- they used to do it with bones, but then they evolved it to coins, and they used to do it with yarrow stalks [a common, long-stemmed white flower]. What you get is a good sense of how you're feeling, where you're at in your life.

KUIPERS: How is this a book of meditations?

CHONG: I'm a writer, I just write all the time. I hadn't planned it to be a book, I just have a compulsion. I tried to write a Cheech & Chong book, and I've been working on it for five years, and I just can't get it going. But this new book was so personal that, when I started writing it, I realized: no one knows who I am. So I started writing about who I am, and I picked out memories from my past and then I realized, damn, I'm almost 70 years old, so I've got a lot of memories.

KUIPERS: And those are meditative?

CHONG: Well, I'm into meditation. Actually, Cheech turned me on to meditation. When I first met Cheech, he followed that guru from India [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi]. Every once in a while I'd go over to meet with Cheech, and he'd be meditating. It wasn't 'til years and years later that I read a book by Joel Goldsmith, The Mystical I, and he went into the depth of meditating with your mind on God. And so when I went into prison, I thought: well, this is the best place in the world to put meditation to work.

KUIPERS: What was your meditative practice in prison?

CHONG: I ended up being the go-to guy with the I Ching. You have a lot of time in jail, so I read about how they did it with the yarrow stalks, and yarrow stalks were growing in the Indian garden at the prison. I did I Ching readings for the prisoners and it would blow people's minds. I was in a recreation room and I was throwing coins and doing mine and this guy, Mike, came up to me and he asked, "What are you up to, Chong?"

And I told him, and I said, "Do you want me to do your reading?" And he said "Sure." So I had him throw the coins, and when he read his reading, it blew his mind so bad he just handed me the book and he stayed the rest of the day on his bunk. I read his thing and it said that he had just suffered a terrible accident. And he had, like, a couple of months before, his wife and child were killed in a car accident coming up to see him. The book nailed it. And same with me, my first reading was, "You're in jail for a reason."

KUIPERS: Were you there for a reason?

CHONG: Yeah, absolutely. It was to reconnect with my spiritual self, with my job. The problem with me is that I've got this incredible ego, but I know that I was meant to do what I've been doing. From my earliest childhood, I knew I had something unfinished on this planet to do. And I got too comfortable in my life ... doing comedy, having a good time, collecting checks. And jail was like a little nudge, saying, "C'mon, let's get back to work."

KUIPERS: You went to prison for selling bongs, right?

CHONG: The official charge was "conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia over state lines." Supposedly, it was part of a nationwide sting, but everybody they busted is either back in business or going back in business.

KUIPERS: In the book you say that this is payback for all the movies, for laughing at cops, for Sergeant Stadanko.

CHONG: Yup. The Bush administration, Karl Rove, they just figure out who's got the media power. They mentioned that in the transcripts of the trial. They said that I had gotten rich, made millions of dollars off making movies about glorifying drug use and making fun of law enforcement.

KUIPERS: Well, that's true.

CHONG: Yeah, totally true. But it's also written in the Constitution that I have that right. And that shows you the extent of this administration, what outlaws they are. It's like the "weapons of mass destruction" reason to raid Iraq. It's the same mindset: they have an agenda and they will do anything to meet their goals.

KUIPERS: Do you view weed as kind of a sacrament?

CHONG: Yes, totally. It's a gift, and it's written that He gave us the seeds and the trees for our use. It's in, I forget which one, Genesis or something.

KUIPERS: Are you part of any church?

CHONG: No, I was never a member of any church. Now I'm a member of an Indian sweat lodge. That's my official church now. When we lived on a farm, the only entertainment was Sunday school. And then I ended up teaching Sunday school when I was really young, and then I went to bible camp when I was seven, eight years old. And it was an incredible experience because it was purely spiritual for me. And that's when I knew that I was somehow connected, because it all made sense at that age; I loved the praying, the singing, everything. That's how I got into show business: They used to put on little plays at that camp. It was the best two weeks of my life. And we would walk out into a field of clover and grass and sit down, and the teacher would tell us stories of Jesus, the beautiful stories. What really stayed with me is how to pray. You pray for wisdom, because if you've got wisdom you don't need nothing else.

KUIPERS: You mention in the book that you asked for wisdom and these stories are what happened.

CHONG: Exactly. That's how everything fell together. One of the guys, the Confucians or the Buddhists, they say when the pupil's ready, the teacher appears. And that's what happened to me. When I was standing there being sentenced to nine months in jail, in my mind I heard this phrase: "Thy will be done." When I was ready to do the book the editor appeared, the publisher appeared. Everything appears at the right time.

Soldiers Wage Battle Against War

David Zeiger's new documentary film, Sir, No Sir!, captures one particular day in 1970 that the U.S. military establishment desperately wants you to forget. It was Armed Forces Day, and across the country, years of rising resistance to the war in Vietnam culminated in a nationwide anti-war protest by active military personnel that shut down planned celebrations at 28 U.S. bases. In fact, tens of thousands of GIs were involved in resistance to the Vietnam War, printing over 100 underground antiwar newspapers and coordinating their actions in a string of activist coffeehouses that sprung up near bases all across the country.

Today, however, that memory has been all but erased. And when Zeiger, an L.A.-based filmmaker, realized that soldiers speaking out about the Iraq War were being largely ignored because of military control of the war message, he felt he had to act. A former activist in the antiwar coffeehouse circuit, Zeiger found loads of footage about what was a big news story in the 1960s and '70s, showing that thousands of soldiers thought it their duty to speak out against war back then. He hopes to empower those who need to do so today.

Dean Kuipers: Was the GI movement against the Vietnam War not well known?

David Zeiger: Today, almost no one knows about it, but at the time, in fact, a lot of people did know about it. The demonstrations of GIs at Fort Hood for example - there were two demonstrations on Armed Forces Day, demonstrations in 1970 and 1971, that involved thousands of GIs -- those were covered by all the local media in Texas. Walter Cronkite did a two-part series on the GI underground press. But in the years since, what has happened is literally people's memories have been reshaped by the Reagan administration, which has been obviously carried over with the Bush administrations.

The politics were that the Vietnam War was a noble war fought bravely by soldiers who came home only to be spat on and vilified by selfish middle class hippies who condemned them for the war and who betrayed them. So the memory of what actually happened has been buried.

Kuipers: Was there an active campaign on the part of the DOD to try to scrub this out of memory?

Zeiger: The political agenda of erasing the GI movement from the memory of Vietnam was set by Reagan himself. He declared in that speech, "I will never send American troops again to a war that their government's not willing to win." And then, in the early '80s, was a campaign largely orchestrated by the Reagan administration to "honor the vet." This was around the time that the Vietnam memorial was built. This was very much the project of General Westmoreland, who had been the commander in Vietnam up until the Tet Offensive, and who was roundly hated by the troops, very similar to the role [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has today. The undercover political message was that they fought a good war. And if you say the war was not good then you're not honoring the vets.

Kuipers: But people who were against the war surely remember?

Zeiger: There's a lot of willingness -- even on the part of very progressive people -- to buy into that. The Presidio Mutiny was one of the biggest events of the San Francisco antiwar movement during that era -- there was actually one really bad Hollywood movie made about it. But books about Vietnam never mention it. Even the Vietnam history that was on PBS in the late '70s, early '80s doesn't say anything about it. These events have been literally, willfully written out. I got an e-mail from someone who said, "For years, I told people about this stuff and they thought I was crazy."

Kuipers: And soldiers used to publish underground newspapers?

Zeiger: They were coming out of bases, largely. A lot of people had access to mimeograph machines -- company clerks and whatever. When I worked at the Oleo Strut coffee house in Killeen, Texas, which was off Fort Hood, the civilians helped get the printer [to put out a paper called The Fatigue Press]. But all the articles were written by guys in the military and it was all laid out by them. Some of them had some staying power because they had a support base outside of the military. But others might come out with three or four issues and suddenly they got transferred or kicked out or jailed -- which also happened.

Kuipers: Were there consequences for GIs who did these things?

Zeiger: Absolutely. There's no actual law against publishing -- it's not in the Code of Military Justice -- but there's one catch-all regulation that you can't do anything that undermines good order and discipline in the military.

Kuipers: Were these coffeehouses and newspapers connected as a kind of network?

Zeiger: Yeah. It was mainly a fundraising network -- they weren't connected as a political organization. But there were a couple of national organizations that dedicated themselves to supporting the underground newspapers and coffeehouses at military bases. From about 1968 to 1971, they were very successful -- there were maybe 30 to 40 places that existed near military bases. Even in Saigon: the National Lawyers Guild had a military counseling office in Saigon for GIs who were charged with fragging, for GIs who had deserted, to provide whatever legal aide they could for those guys.

Kuipers: Why do this film now?

Zeiger: Iraq. It was the buildup and the invasion of Iraq that essentially made this story new and relevant again. I realized if I don't tell this story now, then after the Iraq War, it's definitely going to be too much in the past. It's cool to make a film that says nothing about the present but everyone sees it as a film about the present.

Kuipers: Is there a movement among the soldiers in the Iraq war to get us out of Iraq?

Zeiger: Absolutely. There have been more individuals who have refused to go to Iraq or refused to return to Iraq in the last couple of years than in the first few years of the Vietnam War. There are some very public cases. The one that is becoming a big case now is Lieutenant Ehren Watada. There's Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who's in prison now. There's Petty Officer Pablo Paredes down in San Diego. [Army Specialist] Katherine Jashinski. The fact that these soldiers are choosing to very publicly refuse and oppose the war is significant because they're setting themselves up for the worst kind of military retribution, which is not just putting you in prison but declaring that you're betraying your buddies.

This is how the military has re-shaped things to undercut an antiwar movement in the military. In Vietnam, you went in and out of the war as individuals. One of the things the military does now is they keep units together; you're there to protect yourself and your buddies.

Kuipers: Have you connected with that movement?

Zeiger: Yeah. Iraq Veterans Against the War Iraq Veterans Against the War, which was formed a couple of years ago on the first anniversary of the war, has been working very closely with the film and we've actually done a program with them of sending free DVD's of the film to anyone in the service who wants them.

Kuipers: Are soldiers aware of an antiwar movement and how it pertains to them?

Zeiger: I'm not sure how much debate there is going on inside the military about the nature of the war and the justness of it. I know that if you saw the film Occupation Dreamland, which was the second film about Iraq troops -- the one that came out after Gunner Palace -- it revealed the conflict that exists inside a unit of the 101st Airborne. It really showed that there's not the kind of monolithic unity that people think there is.

Kuipers: It's clear that soldiers have questions about their role. But do they have contact with solutions?

Zeiger: It's hard to know. One of the things that influenced a lot of troops in Vietnam was the Vietnamese people. There was a lot more freedom in Vietnam, as soldiers, to be out there among the people if they wanted to. That doesn't seem to be the case in Iraq.

Getting His War On

David Rees never wanted to make political statements. He didn't even want to be a political cartoonist. In the days directly following September 11, when he was living in New York City, he just needed to hear an honest rendition of his country's internal dialogue about fear and war. As the media doggedly delivered a highly formalized and polarized debate about revenge, Rees listened to another line of discourse playing out in the white-collar offices where he worked as a temp, in the streets, in the music, and mostly in his own head. There he found horror, misunderstanding, hip-hop slang, and yes, jokes. There he found "Get Your War On."

Laughing at real-life horror like cluster-bombing Afghani children or floating bodies in New Orleans is bound to offend, and Get Your War On spares no one. The strip excoriates the Bush administration, the military, religious extremists of all stripes -- it has the audacity to laugh at death itself -- and exposes the apathy, fatigue, and bafflement experienced by almost every American. It has also become immensely popular, appearing exclusively in every issue of Rolling Stone and getting 25 million hits a year online.

Standing outside a lecture hall on the University of Southern California campus, where he's making an appearance for the Annenberg School for Communications, 33-year-old Rees looks like another junior professor -- grey tweed coat, the first touch of gray at the temples, a clutch of files in one hand. Since the strip spawned a series of three well-received books, Rees has done a lot of this. He knows the students are going to ask him about the global uproar over the Mohammed comics, and he's been thinking about that quite a bit himself.

"Since I became an atheist, I think any kind of restriction on picturing or making fun of or commenting on deities or prophets just rubs me the wrong way," says Rees, talking quickly, and seeming to figure out what he's going to say as he says it. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons he created his comic: to figure out how he felt about things.

He has decided that American newspapers should print the cartoons.

"I don't see why not," he says. "Seeing the cartoons kind of removes a level of mystery. It kinda deflates the issue, at least it did for me. 'Oh, these are just crappy cartoons, like mediocre cartoons.' I don't think you should necessarily publish photographs of victims of Janjawid rape in Sudan, or something. But I do think that to eliminate a layer of uncertainty and anxiety is useful in some way."

He also believes it is a test of our Constitutional civility. His own comic depends on it: Offensive speech is still protected speech in the United States.

"If they publish them in the United States, and you are an American Muslim, and you look at the cartoon and it drives you fucking bananas, you do just have to reconcile yourself: Are you comfortable living in a society where -- it's not like a tactful thing to do, or necessarily a sophisticated political critique -- but this is a country where you are allowed to do things like that."

Rees knows what it's like to get hate mail. He got a bunch of it when he started "Get Your War On," mostly from people enraged by his irreverent response to 9/11 and war, which was then isolated to Afghanistan. But he didn't get as much as he thought he would, and no one ever beat him up for it or burned his effigy, even when he visited small conservative towns on his book tours. Having been raised by very liberal parents in conservative North Carolina, he was prepared for more reaction.

"I was talking with a friend about the whole 'Piss Christ' controversy, that piece by Andres Serrano? My friend was saying, 'Oh, this is just the same thing.' But [former North Carolina Senator] Jesse Helms didn't go out and smash embassies and shit, you know what I'm saying?" Rees laughs.

With Rolling Stone paying what he calls "good money" for the strip, Rees has had a lot of time to grapple with his feelings about all this. But that doesn't mean he's as aggressively political as someone like (his example) left-wing comic artist Ted Rall, nor is he aggressively trying to expand his exposure. Indeed, Rees was so reluctant to profit off the strip, which began as faxes to friends and is only syndicated to a "handful" of alt-weeklies, that he has assigned the royalties from two of his popular books to a non-profit that removes land mines from the war-scarred province of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan.

"One of the reasons I started the comic was this crazy situation we had with the cluster-bombs and the food aid packages dropping at the same time in Afghanistan," he says. "It's a way of using the comic to make some small change, because I didn't feel confident that the comic itself would do that, or even that it would be appropriate. Because I felt like the comic would become less interesting."

And that, after all, is the point. Rees had nothing to lose when he started the comic, being a virtual unknown, and he regards it now as neither a meal ticket nor a political organizing tool. He's only interested in the strip as it continues to work as a comic and as an experiment in language. His clip-art characters let him keep the emphasis on the dialogue -- a super-contemporary mix of hip-hop slang and office shorthand and self-help psychobabble -- that reveals something dark and uncomfortable in all of us, maybe even in our national character. We are all complicit. Remember, it's called "Get Your War On" -- and that includes himself.

"I was going to quit 'Get Your War On' when Kerry was sworn in and Bush left," he says with a sigh, "and Bush won, and I was like, 'Oh god, I've got to do this shit for another four years.' Now it's like running a marathon: Come on, a couple more hills, and then you'll be done when Bush is done! But I think I'll continue it for now, because it is cathartic."

Watching Color TV

This just in: Still hardly any Indians on television.

And Asians have only incrementally better representation. Latinos and people of African descent are doing better, but still looking for more. Never know when those network suits will attempt to roll back progress.

On December 1, representatives of Asian-American, Latino, and Native American media advocacy groups presented their annual "report cards" on minority representation in television. (An NAACP version is due out next month.) Network television, that is. These reports are consistently worth a few column-inches of newspaper space, some cursory web stories, and a "tsk"-flavored 15 seconds of local anchor soundbite time, but their value for effecting real change is still in question.

It would seem that the biggest motivation for change would be the network's own ears to the ground and the cell numbers of producers and agents of color. This year, NBC and Fox declined even to submit numbers for executive and minority-themed project procurements, respectively.

As unduly Caucasian as the television landscape can appear, these reports, staples since the Big Four networks agreed in 1999 to increase diversity, come off more dire and less connected than the television you know and love. They read as though downloading has not yet been invented. This year's reports generally praise ABC for its diversity in casting shows such as "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy" and the overall Latino vibe of its Wednesday night lineup, which features "The George Lopez Show" and Freddie Prinze Jr. in "Freddie."

Beyond that -- Native Americans aside, of course -- idiot box progress is presented as mixed yet hopeful. Again.

In fact, television has never contained a greater percentage of colored faces and programming written and produced by such people. Myrka Dellanos, Sujin Pak and Dave Chappelle are, for small example, television personalities of large influence and heat among certain segments of American culture. Such actors and personalities aren't included in the report cards, which are compiled and presented by the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition.

The reports count primetime network presence and ignore all else, although this year a reality show category has been added. Under those criteria, the partially Spanish-language children's phenomenon that is "Dora The Explorer" goes unrecognized. Likewise, Peter Chung's mid-'90s MTV phenomenon "Aeon Flux," one of the greatest influences in the TV animation movement, would not have been counted.

"Programming and networks that rely on young audiences are more likely to show diversity," said Neal Justin, television critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. "Let's give credit where credit is due."

Cable representation isn't monitored "because it takes a helluva lot of time, energy, and resources," said Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Limited resources also result in the advocacy groups opting against counting news and sports programming in its diversity studies.

Karen Narasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, said her organization has had UCLA graduate students count the screentime accrued by Asian talent on cable.

"If you look at MTV, for example, they do a better job than the networks on any given night," Narasaki said. "The same is true of Lifetime."

Most of the channels -- cable or broadcast -- are owned by the same media companies, which means they deserve some blame for keeping the color in cable. If Viacom, for example, thought its Comedy Central and MTV stars would keep their advertisers and audiences satisfied, the corporation would find a place for them on primetime network shows, which play to much larger audiences. Stars, producers, and writers of cable shows are generally paid less than their network counterparts.

"I don't think we should downplay the problems with broadcast networks," Justin said. "They're still doing a crummy-to-mediocre job."

Justin used the example of NBC's "ER" and its depiction of Asians.

"In Chicago [where the drama is set], you can't avoid an Asian doctor," says Justin, yet he estimates that only two have appeared on the show. This, he says, is due to the politicization of television minority representation, as well as black scriptwriters' relative success in breaking Hollywood's color barrier. On the positive side, he cited an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" in which the title character "had a one-night stand with a South Asian, and there was no reference to it. That's just the way it was. You gotta give that props."

The fact that media observers even have to count the odd instance of apparent color-blind casting makes Narasaki, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, chafe. The media monitor said primetime shows about high school fail because network writers lack experience with integrated public school education and sketch portraits that bear little resemblance to actual life. This ignorance filters down to minor characters who aren't incidentally Asian, whether they're walking in airports or working in office buildings.

"I should be able to see myself in any role," she said. "I'm looking forward to the day when Asian-Americans are just like any other people."

The Asian and Latino reports generally give the four major networks B-to-C grades. CBS -- traditionally the lowest scoring, according to the Asian Coalition -- earned a C-, and ABC scored highest with a C+. The Latino media council also gave ABC its highest grade, a B, while CBS, Fox and NBC all earned C+ grades. Native Americans in Television and Film gave all of the networks failing grades. And representatives from the networks said, again, that diversity is important and they will try to increase it.

Despite the impact of cable television, which pioneers more daring shows and is generally more integrated, the monitors of the TV Report Card are going to continue to hammer away at network TV.

"The reality is that the networks have a lot more of the audience," Narasaki said. The monitors take umbrage at the assertion that their approach is dated. They're not going to shift their attention from the single-digit channels on your TV, where network programming is, to the cable channels. And they're not going to stop focusing on prime time.

"It's not in sports. It's not in news. It's not in children's programming," Nogales said. "It's in primetime. You have to go to where the most eyeballs are."

The Way of All Weeklies

Merry Christmas, Los Angeles.

The present's in the mail. Word got out and blew from Phoenix to New York and back out west beginning on Labor Day: The long-rumored corporate takeover of "alternative" news-on-print is indeed on order.

After the holidays, Phoenix-based NT Media takes control of The Village Voice, which in 1994 bought L.A. Weekly. NT Media - or, more familiarly, New Times - would assume the Voice name and take over not so long after one of the most shameful chapters in domestic alternative print press history: the 2003 Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against the L.A. Weekly and New Times ownership. Now they're no longer merely in bed together. They're hitched up like a stateside Charles and Camilla, and valued at $400 million.

The L.A. Times is also in some flux, with a new editor in local news- hound Dean Baquet and rumors of suitors sniffing about. Take into account the emerging cultural relevance of this publication, and you've got on tap a Goliath vs. Goliath (vs. David) newspaper fight unlike anything this town has seen. An old-fashioned journalism war. In lieu of pro football.

At stake is the future of progressive journalism. The unofficial truth has seemingly been forever under attack by major multinationals and short attention spans. Its politics are heavier than big media allow, and its formal freedom queers pollsters and consultants. Like its nephew the Internet, the best of the nation's weeklies (The Stranger, Willamette Week, The Boston Phoenix) are charged ions. Now a group of libertarians disguised as Men Without Politics are preparing to set the tone.

Full disclosure: I was a former staff writer and union local president at the L.A. Weekly. The publisher of CityBeat once toiled for the New Times chain. And a whole mess of the editors used to be at the Los Angeles Reader when it was bought and summarily flushed by New Times. The 2003 Department of Justice Consent Decree that ended the antitrust suit literally refers to this paper as an "Interested Party." And this writer hates to lose.

It happens, once every 3,000 blue moons. Sometimes the arrival of a chain is good. And, as objectively as can be stated under the present circumstances, New Voice Times will be good for journalism in Los Angeles.

Journalism backwater

Unless you're hauling your telephoto lens around stars' back fences, Los Angeles is an absolute journalism backwater, an amorphous, misunderstood collection of municipalities with as much day-to-day reporting buzz as, say, Tampa. New York is royalty; on a second tier are the Phillys, Chicagos, and San Franciscos. But our town has no competition at the daily print level, and Hollywood owns TV. That's why L.A. Weekly, established back in 1978, is iconic among hip people of a certain age. Some of the most important reporting and criticism in alternative-press history has come across its pages.

At the same time, it's important to know that parts of this article were composed on New Times computers. CityBeat was, in part, built out of that 2003 Dept. of Justice decision mentioned above. Village Voice LLC, owner of six papers, and New Times, which has 12, were made to sell off some of their assets more than two years ago, after the media companies shut down competing operations here and in Cleveland. Actual competitive journalism was happening in the two cities. And, as actual competitive journalism is something like a war, it costs money.

"Rather than letting the marketplace decide the winner," Acting Assistant Attorney General H.R. Hewitt Pate said, in the 2003 federal consent agreement, "these companies chose to corrupt the competitive process by swapping markets, thereby guaranteeing each other a monopoly and denying consumers in Los Angeles and Cleveland the continued benefits of competition."

If one listened closely enough that day, audible was I.F. Stone doing a half-gainer in his crypt. Could there be a bigger fuck-you to the ideals of a free and independent press than to conspire against alternative voices in two of the nation's greatest cities? And to commiserate this way during the run-up to war in Iraq?

There's a luxuriant romance to how we regard these weeklies. Truth is, Michael Ventura and Norman Mailer don't come 'round much anymore. The Weekly and the Voice have long been run by investors who contribute to Bush, who sell pet food, not to mention having been run by Rupert Murdoch. Voice Media greed is not unexpected. That brand sells as culture product for Manhattan and Hollywood, and it's not completely absurd to speculate that, if the hot publishing trend became Boiled Negroes Monthly, they'd at least explore the option.

A pioneering newsweekly

New Times is supposed to be different, though: It's the ultimate college newspaper story. Back in 1971, Lacey, an ace reporter and peripheral Arizona State student, and his business-minded partner Larkin started a newspaper in large part to provide honest reporting in Phoenix about Vietnam. Arizona State's New Times was a slap in the face for disenchanted Arizona Republic readers. Over the course of years, this endeavor developed into a pioneering newsweekly - Larkin and Lacey played with their newspaper category as they found the word "alternative" to be too tied to leftism. New Times papers have generally been happily tin-eared in their culture section, but in that the papers sounded specifically like Larkin and Lacey and racked up national ad revenue.

"They never bought the 'alternative' thing," said Lisa Davis, a former staff writer at NT Media's Phoenix and San Francisco papers. "In that way, they were alternative."

Lacey and Larkin, both in their 50s, purchased the Denver paper, Westword, in 1983, further establishing the company. Engagements with investors began by the '70s. A decade later, this sort of activity stepped up a level with an early effort to buy the Voice, which was followed by a purchase of the SF Weekly. This meant that such purchases and investments (such as its ad juggernaut The Ruxton Group, which sells to 26 "newsweeklies") had to be extremely streamlined. NT Media's business model was at the time the envy of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

The chain blew into Los Angeles in 1996 and bought up the Reader and Village View for a total of nearly $4 million. In putting together a competitor to the Weekly, whose politics Lacey and Larkin openly abhorred, they paid twice what the properties were worth. But that was Lacey. As a journalist, he'd throw thousands of dollars and hours at stories. Here was a passionate man who wanted Los Angeles. And he evidently didn't care who he stepped on to get it. According to eyewitness reports, Lacey marched into the office of the Village View and simply announced in person that nearly everyone was fired.

Former L.A. Reader managing editor Erik Himmelsbach wrote about Lacey's grand entrance there in a piece published in the L.A. Alternative Press in 2002:

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DIY Disaster Relief

Don’t let anybody kid you. The government response to Hurricane Katrina was not only a disaster when the storm first hit. It’s still a disaster now.

I’ve been talking to medical professionals who have been to the Gulf Coast in the past couple of weeks, and this is what they have told me.

First, FEMA continues to be next to useless. It is not providing relief workers with the access they need to areas crying out for their help. It is not keeping up with bills for the emergency work it has authorized so far. A shockingly large number of doctors and nurses are being told that their services are not needed. Those with the guts and the initiative to go ahead regardless are finding that the exact opposite is true –- thousands upon thousands of storm evacuees who have run out of their prescription medications, or require new prescriptions, or need help with a panoply of storm-induced problems, from simple cuts and bruises to infections and depression and suicidal feelings.

Secondly, FEMA and the Red Cross are not talking to each other to sort it all out. At the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana –- home to more than 5,000 evacuees –- there was, as of a few days ago, no formal on-site medical care. That meant people had the unenviable choice of going to the emergency room of a Lafayette hospital, waiting in line for hours and hoping for the best, or somehow fending for themselves.

Thirdly, the failures of the first six weeks or so since Katrina struck are likely only to compound the problems down the road. Sanitation in the shelters is a nightmare. Some professionals don’t exclude outbreaks of tuberculosis or other diseases one might have associated, pre-Katrina, with an earlier, more backward era.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s Paula Criscenzo, a Californian nurse, who recently traveled to the Gulf with her sister, an internist, and committed her impressions of the Cajundome to paper:

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Labor Plays Hardball

The polished hallways of the County Federation of Labor downtown are completely still, as a computer blinks silently and unattended beneath a photo of the late labor leader Miguel Contreras. Then, the doors at the far end of the hall abruptly fling wide, and several people emerge. Among them is Martin Ludlow, immaculately dressed and radiating energy.

The executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Fed is engaged in an animated discussion with a colleague. He reaches for a cell phone, then shakes a visitor's hand and points the way to his office. On his desk there, amid neatly stacked piles of paper, sits a replica of a baseball with a base inscribed with the words: Sometimes You Have to Play Hardball.

For Ludlow, that time is now. In the coming months, he must balance two Herculean tasks. California unions are in the fight of their lives against three November 8 special election ballot initiatives backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The central battle will be over Proposition 75, designed to hamstring labor fundraising for political organizing and campaigns. But labor also opposes Proposition 74, which would subject teachers to a five-year probation period and short-circuit a right to a hearing before being fired; and Proposition 76, which would change the state constitution to give the governor unprecedented power over the budget and change funding levels for education.

Voter-rich L.A. will be critical to defeating the initiatives, and Ludlow is charged with rallying troops. Meanwhile, he's got to keep his eye on another front. As the county's top labor leader, and a national figure, Ludlow is pivotal in the historic fight to prevent the national union movement from imploding. In an event analogous to California seceding from the U.S., seven big unions (and millions of members) have now split from the 50-year-old AFL-CIO. The labor movement is at a crossroads: to either re-emerge with new vigor, or wither away.

Of balancing the two fights, Ludlow says bluntly, "It's difficult. I don't think the two work hand-in-hand necessarily easily. You just have to do it."

The November elections are most immediate, but the split that rocked the national AFL-CIO has reverberations -- and dangers -- for Los Angeles. The dissident Change To Win coalition -- formed earlier this year by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with hotel and garment workers, grocery workers, and the Teamsters -- had grown impatient at the pace of reform under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. They wanted union funds focused on union recruitment, and opposed the AFL-CIO's emphasis on funding political campaigns for candidates that often were only lukewarm allies.

The coalition broke away from the AFL-CIO in July. And last week, at a national meeting in St. Louis, the divorce became final. Change To Win, an alliance of unions that now numbers seven, formally became a labor federation separate from the AFL-CIO.

And L.A. was in the house in a big way.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of the Los Angeles local of UNITE HERE -- the hotel and garment union -- and an advocate of aggressive local organizing, addressed some 500 delegates. "She was very well received," enthuses Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. Also out in force were reps from L.A. locals of the SEIU, the lead breakaway union. And that's where it gets sticky for L.A.

Close to one-third of the member locals in the County Fed are SEIU. UNITE HERE is also influential. But the national AFL-CIO sets the rules for the local labor councils like the L.A. County Fed. It remains to be seen whether the AFL-CIO will permit the breakaway unions to work with those that stayed.

If the AFL doesn't allow it, that means here in L.A. the County Fed would be unable to work with SEIU locals that make up a large chunk of its membership. Even now, SEIU 1877 is ratcheting up an organizing drive that would unionize some 10,000 security guards. A ban would also preclude work with UNITE HERE, which just won a yearlong strike with support from Ludlow, and is engaged in a battle to unionize the Glendale Hilton.

The County Fed's budget would also take a serious hit, cut by perhaps as much as 40 percent. To date, relationships in Los Angeles between Change To Win locals and those still AFL-CIO-affiliated remain cordial. All have committed to working together to defeat antiunion ballot measures.

There is enough at stake for the entire union movement that the AFL-CIO is unlikely to crack down on local relationships. Representatives from state and local labor organizations and the AFL-CIO have met to discuss how to advance a labor agenda and hold the national movement together through local organizing campaigns.

Labor councils and community affiliates in some 15 cities are so convinced that local organizing is the way forward that they have formed a new national network, the Partnership for Working Families. "From the central labor council and state federations' perspective, they want to keep it intact, so there are negotiations going on at different levels," explains UCLA's Wong.

Ludlow was part of a delegation of local representatives that met with the AFL-CIO's Sweeney. "We made it very clear that we believe that the national labor movement can stay robust at the local level. But we have to be allowed to do it."

The AFL-CIO has taken the positive step of issuing "solidarity charters" that will allow unaffiliated unions to work with AFL unions. But there are some poison pills to be negotiated away before Change To Win unions consider participating. One provision would require non-AFL-CIO to pay 10 percent more in dues to the local councils or state federations they work with; the other provision would preclude officials from breakaway unions to hold office in the local body.

"We're adamantly opposed to the solidarity charters," says Tyrone Freeman, president of the SEIU home care workers union and a Change To Win enthusiast. He doesn't believe the AFL-CIO has much leverage in enforcing such agreements. "The finances of all the labor councils are generated by the locals. Resources from the national federation are limited to nonexistent."

Ludlow is less defiant, or at least more low-key. The AFL-CIO will either support their affiliates working locally with Change To Win affiliates - or not. He sees the Change To Win federation as having opened up the potential for that national labor movement to grow and flourish. He wants to bring another delegation of local labor leaders to meet with the AFL-CIO executive board to persuade them to allow AFL-CIO unions to work with Change To Win unions on the local level without penalty.

"If [they] don't do it, then clearly central labor council leaders and state federation leaders are pushed to be creative around how they restructure and refinance," he says. "That's a lot of unnecessary energy in my opinion. I'd rather focus those hours and those creative brainstorming sessions on how we organize the unorganized."

Dirty Business

On Friday, July 8, some 150 striking workers from the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 crowded a picket line at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, Calif.

The picketers � dressed in purple SEIU T-shirts � sought shade where they could find it. Many had shown up at dawn, and by noon the heat was taking a toll. But when a truck pulled into the long driveway, a current of energy surged through the crowd. Picketers jumped to their feet, waving signs and chanting "Si se puede!" as they crossed back and forth in front of the vehicle, blocking its way.

Just two days before, 700 janitors had voted to strike against the contractors providing cleaning services at Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrup Grumman aerospace facilities.

The truck's driver, a young Latino man, watched from his cab with a bemused expression. Five police cruisers arrived, hanging back while the driver consulted with someone via cell phone. When the conversation was finished, he grinned, backed his rig up, and retreated back down the driveway.

The picketers chanted louder, clapped, and cheered as the truck turned back out onto Imperial Highway. Their energy rejuvenated, the picketers continued singing and chanting as a school bus arrived to deliver them to the next action site. One of the women grabbed a bullhorn and leaned out the bus window. "Go and clean out the building, please," she called to onlookers, many of them Boeing employees. "I'll pay you $6.25. Clean the restrooms, please! But no vacation!" Howls of laughter from her colleagues sounded over the bus engine's thrum.

High morale is a crucial element here, because the strike could prove tough. For one thing, the lines of the conflict are slightly blurred. The most visible target for picket lines are the multibillion-dollar aerospace companies where the janitors work. But the dispute is actually with three cleaning contractors � Aramark Corporation, Somers Building Maintenance Corporation, and Servicon Systems, Inc. � retained by the aerospace giants to maintain their facilities.

There's little doubt that strikers face financial hardship while walking a picket line, even with the modest strike benefits provided by the union. Erica Romero, who has worked the night shift at the Northrup facility in Redondo Beach for the past four years, says she makes $7.65 an hour, with no paid sick days or health insurance; some of her colleagues make a dollar less an hour.

With her paycheck-to-paycheck existence, she's not sure how long she can stay out on the picket line. But she's adamant that she deserves better than she's been getting. "We're not asking for anything big, just a decent salary, nine or ten dollars an hour. That's just."

Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the three cleaning contractors, says that management has offered a $2.75-an-hour raise over three years -- about ninety cents a year. He says that the profit margins for the cleaning contracting companies are very thin. "Everybody perceives that their employer is making a ton of money, but that's not true."

The union strategy is to pressure the client aerospace companies, which enjoy lucrative government contracts and hire the subcontractors. "The client companies pit the contractors against each other and the lowest bid gets the work," explains Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877, the janitors' union. The hope is that Boeing, Northrop, and Raytheon officials will sit down at the negotiating table to work out a solution, since, in the union's view, they ultimately hold the purse-strings that could be loosed to provide the janitors a raise.

A Northrup spokesman would only say that it's company policy to not interfere in subcontractors' labor relations; Boeing referred us to Davis, the negotiator for the cleaning contractors, and Raytheon did not respond to calls.

The union is using an array of tactics to get all parties to the negotiating table. The ongoing actions at the corporate facilities continue, and political pressure may be building as well. The amount of business aerospace companies do with state and federal officials make them vulnerable to a word from those quarters. Garcia has had conversations with U.S. Rep. Jane Harman and state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, whose districts include a lot of aerospace companies, and California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is sure to make a few key phone calls.

Davis, speaking for the cleaning subcontractors, thinks that the strike hasn't got as much support as the union claims, saying that the companies know who shows up at work and who doesn't. Union spokeswoman Beth Trimarco counters that picketers come out before their shifts, and may be too intimidated to avoid work. "At any given time there are something like 400 workers out at the actions," says Trimarco.

Porfirio Corona, who was out at last Friday's picket line, wouldn't guess how long the strike will last. Corona, an 11-year employee of the Aramark Corporation, doesn't look forward to going without a paycheck. He usually brings home about $1,000 monthly. He and his wife are both diabetic; the disease has blinded her, and she's on Medi-Cal. Corona has no health care coverage, and doesn't look well. But, he says, "I'm going to hang in there until the end. I hope the union wins."

Patriot Games

William Cottrell admits he doesn't like SUVs. He even admits to spray-painting "smog machine" onto some SUVs. And he was convicted of being part of a now-infamous San Gabriel Valley arson spree that caused nearly $2.5 million in property damage to SUVs at private residences and dealerships in August of 2003. But is he a terrorist?

Cottrell has the USA Patriot Act to thank for the extra three years and four months he may serve in federal prison for that night of indiscretion. On April 18, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled that the former CalTech graduate student had engaged in "domestic terrorism" by targeting the fuel-inefficient vehicles, since his actions were seemingly meant to intimidate a civilian population, namely SUV-buyers. Cottrell's defense expected the judge to give the physics genius the mandatory minimum sentence of five years. With the sentence enhancement, Cottrell could end up wasting in prison for nearly eight and a half years.

"The section of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines under which they were looking is probably unconstitutional in the way it's framed," says Cottrell's lawyer, W. Michael Mayock.

That particular section of the guidelines was amended in 2002 in response to the Patriot Act. Previously, Cottrell could only have faced additional years in prison for terrorism if the court decided that his crime was meant to "influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct." Under the new guideline, his supposed intent to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" was enough to qualify as terrorism.

While the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Cottrell damaged a lot of property, Mayock points out that they never did prove to the jury that his motive was to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population." The judge made this determination on his own. Mayock believes that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions require the government to prove to a jury that Cottrell actually did intend to influence a civilian population if they want to use the domestic terrorism sentencing enhancement.

Timothy Edgar, a legislative counsel at the ACLU, is familiar with these cases, particularly U.S. v. Booker, which he says will change the way sentencing enhancements are applied for all crimes. "For a very long time, everyone was laboring under the assumption that sentencing enhancements could be determined by a judge without a jury ... under basically a lower standard of proof," says Edgar. "What Booker said, what the Supreme Court said, is that no, because people have a right to trial by jury you have to prove facts that are relevant to sentencing enhancements before a jury."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Beverly Reid O'Connell concedes that the prosecution did not address Cottrell's intent in committing his crimes. "The intent element in the government's case was whether or not he intended to commit arson," she says. "His motivation for doing that was not an element of the government's burden." But she doesn't think that Booker affects sentencing practices in this case and also points out that the defense admitted in its own position paper that Cottrell's actions were "intended to influence the consumer's choice of types of vehicles to purchase."

While Booker advises that matters relevant to sentencing should be proven to a jury, the Patriot Act, in its definition of domestic terrorism, only requires that crimes "appear to be intended" to coerce and intimidate either a civilian population or the government to qualify as terrorism. Seeking to redress this and other disturbing elements of the Patriot Act, civil liberties groups are supporting the "Security and Freedom Ensured Act of 2003" (a.k.a. the "SAFE Act"), which would make intent "something you have to prove, not that you have to prove that they appeared to intend," says Edgar.

Cottrell does not deny that he vandalized SUVs on the night in question by spray-painting them with slogans such as "SUVs suck" and "smog machine." But he insists it was his accomplices, Tyler Johnson and Michie Oe, who threw the molotov cocktails that ignited at least 15 SUVs, including Hummers, and a dealership building. He says he retreated to his car in protest when their actions grew violent.

Cottrell also blames the two fugitives for scrawling "ELF," the acronym for the militant environmental group Earth Liberation Front, on the vehicles. ELF itself claimed responsibility for the firebombing on their website, but Cottrell maintains that he is not affiliated with the group.

That tag in particular sparked the FBI's interests in the case as a crime of domestic terrorism. The bureau considers ELF and its sister organization the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) "the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States." Last year, Deputy Assistant Director John E. Lewis of the Counterterrorism Division bemoaned the difficulty of apprehending these groups in testimony before Congress, citing Cottrell's arrest as evidence of recent progress.

Cottrell's attorney believes that the government is trying to make an example out of him. Asked if she received any pressure from higher-ups to prosecute Cottrell with unusual vigor, O'Connell laughs. "I'm not going to comment on any inside conversations that may or may not have occurred," she says.

Some worry that the Bush administration is more interested in going after militant leftists as domestic terrorists than their right-wing counterparts. In late March, Congressional Quarterly got hold of a Department of Homeland Security document that listed threats to national security. Left-wing groups like ALF and ELF made the list, but, according to the Quarterly, "anti-government groups, white supremacists, and other radical right-wing movements" were nowhere to be found.

James Lafferty, director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, finds this alarming. "What does it say that certain kinds of property crimes and crimes aimed at certain elements of corporate America will get you on the Homeland Security domestic terrorist list, but not ... bombing abortion clinics?" he asks. "What are the corporate interests involved there?" He adds that violent left-wing groups tend to target property, whereas violent right-wing groups, while perhaps less active in recent years, often have human targets in mind.

"In this climate, to label something an act of terrorism -- as opposed to simply a heinous crime or a serious crime or a felonious crime -- is to give it a certain political panache under cover of which you can have these enhanced sentences," says Lafferty. "It's just part of this whole hysteria around terrorism in this country, as though somehow the whole country was being infected with terrorists, which is not the case." Cottrell plans to appeal his case. His lawyer will argue, among other things, that the court was remiss in excluding Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism from which Cottrell suffers, as a possible mitigating factor. "He is doing OK," Mayock says of his client, who is still contending with his recent Asperger's diagnosis. During the sentencing, the prosecution played a tape of Cottrell telling his mother that "the whole field of psychology is a myth." Ironically, his reluctance to accept a label that could well secure his freedom provides compelling evidence that he suffers from the disorder, which lists a stubborn adherence to perceived truth among its symptoms.

Highway Robbery

Driver Mary Jane Winters (yes, that's her name) was pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers for allegedly speeding in Mendocino County on Thanksgiving Day 2004. The CHiPers found two ounces of marijuana in the 53-year-old nurse's car. They kept the Mary Jane, but they let the woman go, citing her with possession. She had a physician's recommendation to smoke weed for her chronic back pain, and charges were eventually dismissed. Under the state Compassionate Use Act, she could legally hold. But critics say state troopers don't recognize the state law, choosing to seize thousands of pounds of medical marijuana found on the highways of Cali each year. Winters wants her weed back.

Now she's one of eight plaintiffs suing the Highway Patrol for the apparent conflict in this CHP policy. According to the CHP's own handbook, even when compassionate use is invoked, "all marijuana shall be confiscated and booked as evidence ... ." Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical-marijuana group, is spearheading the suit, which would require the state to stop taking patients' pot. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and the CHP were named in the action, announced this week in Oakland.

The CHP says the law is not so clear. Medical marijuana users are showing doctors notes to officers as if they're legal tender, but officers aren't necessarily trained to scrutinize the little pieces of paper in the same way they are educated in checking IDs and insurance cards. Who knows if that's a valid doctor's signature, for example? Even after the state legislature authorized universal state ID cards for medical marijuana users in 2003, they have yet to be rolled out, compounding the, er, sticky situation.

"Numerous medical marijuana patients who are stopped by the CHP for minor traffic offenses have their medicine confiscated by the police as an added punishment," reads an Americans for Safe Access statement. "In most cases, when valid documentation is shown to officers, patients are forced to put up with responses such as 'we don't recognize Proposition 215' or 'possession of marijuana is still illegal.'"

The suit seeks to force the CHP "to amend that policy so that it is in compliance with state law" so officers do not "seize the medicine of patients," states Safe Access. And Mary Jane wouldn't actually get her Mary Jane back. The suit wants policy justice, not dried-up evidence.

Love Machines

William Daniel is looking for love. At 60 years old, he's had his fair share of disappointment. A tall neurokinesiologist with a gentle smile and a handlebar mustache, he's no bum. And as he stands backstage at Dr. Phil's Valentine's Day show with a long-stemmed rose in hand, he's hopeful that this may be the day he finds his perfect match.

Daniel is one of about 250 members of the online relationship site that have trekked out to Paramount Studios between January rainstorms to meet someone whose scientifically calculated relationship profile might click with their own. PerfectMatch unites its users based on its DUET� Total Compatibility System, a modified version of a well-known personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. PerfectMatch uses questionnaires to suggest a match between users whose test results indicate that their personalities and relationship needs work together.

Daniel has used online dating sites since 1997. "I've had a couple of really bad experiences," he says. "You find that most people do not see themselves the way other people see them. With PerfectMatch, everybody's being evaluated by the PerfectMatch standards."

Dr. Phil's producers initially keep the male and female PerfectMatch members in separate parts of the overly air-conditioned studio. The women, who sit in the audience, don't know that their scientifically selected suitors await them backstage. "These women are all part of, " Dr. Phil tells the audience, as the whole thing is taped for TV. "What they don't know is we have their perfect match here."

The bachelorettes clap and cheer with delight at the canned talk show stunt, their enthusiasm heartening the men, who file past the cameras sporting suits, leather jackets, and diversely landscaped facial hair.

Among the women is Ronique Nilson, 55, a retired civil engineer and fashion designer wearing a short, hot-pink dress and a silver heart-shaped pendant. In 1996, the early days of internet dating, Nilson began corresponding with a man she met online. After four months of "very honest and very profound" communication, they exchanged photos via fax. "Within six months we were in Mooréa celebrating our honeymoon," she says. When the marriage failed after a few years, Nilson logged back on to the internet, hopeful that she might find a more compatible partner.

"I'm looking a lot into myself," Nilson says, explaining how the PerfectMatch assessment has helped her this time around. "I'm more skeptical, because I recognize that if there was a failure before, probably I am not perfect either."

In the last few years, the stigma that once cast internet personals as being only for the pathetic or dangerous has virtually disappeared, with tens of millions of Americans spending upward of $400 million in 2004 to hook-up, date, long-term relate or marry. Sites like and have carved out a niche they call the "relationship" site, differentiating themselves from the more abundant dating sites by a commitment to lasting love. Women, who are less likely than men to join dating sites, make up more than half of the membership on these new sites.

Relationship sites sell themselves based on a "scientific" approach to matchmaking, using such personality factors as intensity and intellect. does this, too, but isn't above finding "a great date for the weekend." Even established dating sites, such as Yahoo! Personals, have begun to offer supposedly scientific matching.

As in other sectors of cyberspace, however, skepticism is warranted. Matchmaking "science" is still far from a peer-reviewed science accepted in academia. But does that matter? Do these sites have an ethical obligation to guarantee that their tests are proven effective? After all, they're helping people make one of the most important connections of their lives: finding someone to share their bed on lazy Sunday mornings, to tend to their sick children, to grow old together. Are sites that offer scientific solutions to suffering singles merely "trading on our loneliness," as one frustrated user puts it? Or do they truly offer a computer-age breakthrough that guarantees, as Dr. Pepper Schwartz of PerfectMatch says, that we "don't ever have to be lonely again?"

Busy people like Daniel and Nilson aren't looking that deep into the machinery. They see each other at the show. But the computer has assigned them to someone else.

Psychology with a Cross in its Heart

Not everyone finds comfort in the new sites. One 50-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, was drawn to eHarmony because he thought psychological testing "would just be a better way of vetting people." After filling out eHarmony's extensive questionnaire and discovering that the company did not offer same-sex matching, he thought "maybe they just haven't gotten around to it yet." But when he encountered a blog devoted to eHarmony's exclusionary practices, he realized gays just weren't welcome there.

"There's not like a crucifix flash screen that suggests it, [but] somewhere in the background there, I kind of feel like they're encouraging Christian values," he says. "And for them, that means that they don't want to have [gay matching]."

Founded in 1998 by evangelical Christian Dr. Neil Clark Warren, eHarmony was the first and most popular of the test-based matchmaking sites and welcomes more than 10,000 new users a day to its pool of 6 million singles. The personality profile is free, but in order to contact other members, subscribers must pay $49.95 for a one-month membership. So far, Warren's brainchild takes credit for 10,000 marriages, which he claims are happier and more stable than marriages not conceived on his site.

It's hard to know how faith might play into Warren's methods, since he is unwilling to subject his never-published test research to independent review. Is it just that Christian singles, bound by the expectations of their faith, are easier to match? These kinds of questions spin their way through the blogosphere. If eHarmony's research was influenced by evangelical Christian values, as some claim, is it really suited for lonely-hearted atheists, Jews, Muslims – or plain old backsliders?

While eHarmony denies a Christian bias in its approach to matchmaking, the company does have an explicit agenda. One of eHarmony's stated goals is to "reduce the divorce rate in America."

"While they don't mention it explicitly, there's obviously an evangelical influence," says Dr. Mark Thompson of, the company that created the relationship test recently launched on Yahoo! Personals. "Their ads are absolute marketing genius. There's a totally white background. There's a man with white hair standing with a white background. Who is he? It's not coming from him. Metaphorically, it's coming from God."

A sometime guest on the conservative Christian program The 700 Club and contributor to Focus On the Family magazine, Warren received a master's of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Chicago. Warren has also written several books on mate selection. And in addition to operating a private practice, he served as professor and dean of the Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Psychology, which "places the cross in the heart of psychology."

Warren openly describes himself as a "passionate Christian" and an eHarmony advertisement on says the matchmaking company was founded on "Christian principles." But his wife, Marylyn Warren, the company's senior vice president, is careful to say that "eHarmony is meant for everybody. We do not discriminate in any way."

This isn't exactly true, as eHarmony is the only site of the top-10 most trafficked not to offer same-sex matching. Marylyn Warren denies that eHarmony's exclusion of gays and lesbians has anything to do with its founder's religious principles. "It's nothing against it, we just don't want to be involved in something we don't know anything about," she says, noting that eHarmony's research was conducted on married heterosexual couples. "Our goal is to create good heterosexual families, I guess."

Jack Shepler, 21, a student at Ball State University in Indiana, posted the company's carefully crafted response to the FAQ "Does eHarmony do same sex matching?" on his blog ( He received a flurry of comments attacking the company's claim that its "research has only examined heterosexual relationships."

"I don't see that as anything more than rhetoric or an excuse for having that kind of discrimination," he says. "I don't feel that they should be turning anyone away.", the online networking community, recently partnered with eHarmony, announcing, "Friendster proudly introduces" But the company was unaware that its business partner excluded gays and lesbians until informed by CityBeat. Though not a dating site, per se, Friendster allows its members to search for "men, women, or men and women" of the same or opposite sex for dating. "To be honest," says Jim Scheinman, Friendster's head of business development, "I have to call and talk to eHarmony about that, because you're telling me this for the first time."

When asked if Friendster would ever exclude same-sex dating he quickly replies, "No, of course not."

PerfectMatch, True, and Yahoo! Personals all offer same-sex matching. And yet Dr. James Houran, chief psychologist of True, says his own research shows that gay couples are not seeking exactly the same things out of a relationship as straight couples. "It just so happens that heterosexual and homosexual couples ... certainly agree on the recipe for compatibility, but they don't agree on the relative amounts of those ingredients."

"We've always done separate studies for the gay and lesbian community," Thompson says, adding that he's "thrilled" with Yahoo!'s commitment to addressing the unique needs of their gay users.

Warren apparently has a different mission in mind. In a recent article for Focus on the Family on the so-called "cohabitation epidemic," Warren reveals a telling attitude about the relationship between religion and social science. "Many couples who live together don't care about biblical principles, and even faith-oriented people often ignore what the Bible says. This is why psychological and other social science research becomes so critical." The implication seems to be that he'll use science to bring them back to the fold.

Feeling Like a Reject?

In addition to turning away gays and lesbians, eHarmony also rejects one out of five people who fill out the 500-plus questions of its personality profile. If you're in this unlucky 20 percent, you receive a notice that reads, "Unable to match you at this time." According to The Wall Street Journal, eHarmony screens out anyone with a curiously low level of energy (perhaps indicative of depression), users with three or more unsuccessful marriages, or anyone who fails to answer its questions truthfully.

Section three of eHarmony's test is: "About Your Feelings." It asks applicants to rate how often during the last month they have felt anxious, out of control, depressed, unable to cope, etc. Meanwhile, Houran of True calls screening for emotional instability unethical. "Our test and our service does not discriminate against anybody with a mental disability," he says. "We do not get into diagnosing. I know of no psychiatrist that would endorse any online method of diagnosing anybody."

Despite loads of online speculation, however, there is no evidence that eHarmony rejects any other demographic than gays. Not even atheists. Nor is there evidence to suggest that the site refuses to match outside of race and religion.

Opposites Attract?

Samuel Tai, 37, a computer security professional from Long Beach, turned to the Internet to find love, only to be rejected by eHarmony's screening process. "My whole family is trying to marry me off," he says. "One, I'm Chinese and also I'm the firstborn son.

"The entire premise behind the personality matching is scientifically flawed," says Tai, now working on his master's in computer science. "The assumption is basically that like is compatible with like, which may or may not be true."

The major difference between the philosophies employed by PerfectMatch, True, and eHarmony represent a conflict known in the relationship field as homogamy versus complementarity. The homogamous approach is based on the idea that like fits better with like. For the most part, eHarmony's matching philosophy seems homogamous. "What our research kept saying is if you find somebody whose intelligence is a lot like yours, whose ambition is a lot like yours, whose energy is a lot like yours, whose spirituality is a lot like yours, whose curiosity is a lot like yours – it was a similarity model," Warren has said on the PBS series Small Business School. "These are the two principles we believe in: emotional health and finding somebody who's a lot like you."

True, PerfectMatch, and Yahoo! prefer to match users based on complementarity. "We all know, not just in our heart of hearts, but in our experience, that sometimes we're attracted, indeed get along better with somebody different from us," says Dr. Schwartz, a noted expert and professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "So the nice thing about the Myers-Briggs was it's not just characteristics, but how they fit together."

Snake Oil for the Lonely

Houran is adamant that his test is the only truly scientific one on the net. True's test measures 99 relationship factors to calculate an overall compatibility index score between two members, telling them the likelihood that they will get along. Angered by what he sees as his competitors' lack of scientific discipline, he's gone so far as to author an article in The North American Journal of Psychology detailing their failings.

"If we're going to have credibility as an industry, we need to actually use science," Houran says, noting that True's test passed an independent audit by a lead statistician with the Illinois State Board of Education. "We're taking millions of dollars matching people; we should at least ... [make] sure that our tests actually work."

Thompson agrees, saying, "We're appealing to people who aren't succeeding, who feel a certain level of urgency because of their biological clock or because they've been rejected or hurt. So there's an added level of responsibility that goes to that."

Houran reserves his greatest criticism for eHarmony, which in December received $110 million in venture funding. eHarmony assesses its users through a patented questionnaire which measures 29 dimensions of compatibility, such as romantic passion, communication style, and spirituality. Warren claims that his "scientifically proven" test was based on over 30 years of his clinical experience, as well as a nationwide study of over 5,000 married couples. "I've seen no evidence they even conducted any study that forms the basis of their test," Dr. Houran says. "If you're touting that you're doing something scientific ... you inform the academic community."

While initially willing to discuss its site with CityBeat, eHarmony stopped returning phone calls when questioned about its research.

Houran also criticizes PerfectMatch and weAttract for not having their research peer-reviewed. "I had it vetted by a lot of my peers," says Schwartz of PerfectMatch, whose site boasts endorsements from many notable academics in the fields of psychology and sociology.

Thompson suggests it's impractical to subject applied science created under the duress of market influences to academic peer-review procedures. "The peer-review system is not going to apply here," Thompson says, adding that the turnaround for publishing in peer-reviewed journals is typically six months. "We had two months to develop the system for Yahoo! We literally worked around the clock. We did studies on 50,000 people. [Review] is going to have to be via a different system." He does add that his research was conducted using the American Psychological Association's guidelines for ethical research, and that it was reviewed by a panel of independent academics.

eHarmony did release a study at the 16th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society in May of last year, allegedly proving that "eHarmony married couples are significantly happier than couples married for a similar length of time who met by other means."

The True site is unique in that it puts subscribers through mandatory background checks, screening out felons and married people. This brings up real ethical issues for Thompson: "Should we be telling people we can keep them safe, which is what [True] tell[s] them? Should we be telling people that we can get them married, which is what eHarmony is saying? Are we hurting people? Does what we offer work?"

For instance, he's willing to accept that eHarmony is responsible for 10,000 marriages. But that's a significantly small proportion of the millions of matches they claim to have suggested. Thompson says you have a better chance of finding your future spouse if you "go hang out at the Safeway."

Digitalized Daters

The PerfectMatch members who meet on Dr. Phil are disappointed that they haven't all been united with their potential soul mate, but seem to understand that very few things in life ever work out perfectly. At a post-show reception at Hollywood and Highland, the singles flirt, laugh, and commiserate about the dating life over a Wolfgang Puck catered lunch. About 15 of the couples from the show seem to have hit it off. As do audience members William Daniel and Ronique Nilson, who just bump into each other.

"I can't understand why PerfectMatch hasn't sent me her profile," Daniel says, beaming as he peers at her over his handlebar mustache.

"This gentleman is a dancer," she says, enchanted. "I love to dance! I am a ballroom dancer and he is too." While the two weren't brought together by their compatible profiles, they're still eager to see what DUET would think of their pairing. "I'm going to look hers up right away, this intense dancer," Daniel says. "We may not need PerfectMatch much longer." A few hours later, the couple enters a Starbucks together, chatting and laughing away. Sometimes old-fashioned flirting and pheromones can still get the job done, at least for an afternoon.

Doctor No Way

Stuart Hoffman does not believe in the medical use of marijuana – at least, not the kind you grow in your backyard or buy off the street. And he'd feel that way, he says, even if he wasn't the chief medical review officer for the drug testing services at ChoicePoint, with clients ranging from the U.S. government to large national retail chains. Born and educated in Minnesota, he was a private oncologist with a thriving practice in Downey, Calif., for 35 years, and had plenty of patients who used pot to relieve symptoms. And while he agrees marijuana does relieve symptoms – dulling chronic pain, reducing seizures, stimulating the appetite, controlling nausea – he's seen it surpassed by better drugs.

And that, he says, is where the pro-medical marijuana people go wrong. It's not that the feds don't want to relieve suffering of people like Angel Raich, the 38-year-old with a plethora of chronic conditions who has taken her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's that the medical establishment has studied pot and found it lacking. "Angel Raich is being used by a group of people, in my opinion, who are struggling to make marijuana legal across the board," says Hoffman, "and they use all sorts of arguments that are sort of half-truths." He spoke not in his capacity as an officer of ChoicePoint – he cannot speak officially for the company – but as a doctor who couldn't let those "half-truths" lie.

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Negotiating Three Strikes

When an ebullient Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held a Nov. 3 news conference to comment on the elections and all the ballot initiatives that his star power had helped make and break, among the broken was Proposition 66, the initiative to reform California's Three Strikes law.

The measure was defeated handily, 53 percent to 47 percent, when it had once looked like an easy winner. The reform measure enjoyed a 41-point lead in some polls until the governor took a last-minute central role in crushing it. For one thing, he pulled in former Governor Pete Wilson, who wrangled an Orange County billionaire to pour in $1.5 million. Then the movie action-hero-turned-governor also starred in a seemingly endless loop of scare-tactic television commercials – using a configuration of "facts" so skewed that a superior court judge had ruled they couldn't be used in the official ballot arguments.

So it was a little surprising that Schwarzenegger announced at his post-election press conference an interest in changing the controversial California law, which, unlike any other in the country, counts any felony – not merely those considered by law to be serious or violent – as a third strike requiring a 25-to-life sentence.

"I'm going to have conversations with Attorney General Bill Lockyer and you know, with the legislators," the governor declared to the assembled press corps, promising to "look into the Three Strikes system and see if there is anything that ought to be adjusted." And indeed, last week a spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed that initial conversations between the offices of Lockyer and Schwarzenegger had begun.

But the attorney general's spokesman was emphatic about just how preliminary the discussion has been thus far. It's just one indication of just how difficult it may be to get Three Strikes legislation "adjusted," as the governor puts it. Any changes – from tinkering to turning the statute upside-down – must again go on the ballot, because Three Strikes was initially passed as a statutory initiative.

"That presents a unique sort of problem," said Nathan Barankin, Lockyer's communications director. "The legislature can't just pass a bill the governor signs. Any changes would have to be ratified by the people."

But even getting reform through the legislature – the first step toward the ballot – could be tricky, given how gun-shy politicos are about being seen as weak about crime. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg has carried reform legislation that tracks closely with Proposition 66 reforms for several sessions now, and each time the bill has been killed by inaction. Legislative timidity was doubtless ratcheted up by the results of the election and the way it has increased Schwarzenegger's political influence.

Despite fear-mongering by the opposition, Proposition 66 would not have flung open prison doors for child molesters and thugs, as the Schwarzenegger commercials warned. The initiative would have amended the law so that the third strike had to be a violent or serious felony – averting injustice in the future, as supporters saw it.

Another reform crucial to those already incarcerated: Proposition 66 would have permitted third strikers an appeal process that could enable them to be tried for the crime that constituted the third strike instead of receiving an automatic life sentence on strike three. "You'd go back to the same court, and it's set aside as a strike, and the person can be sentenced for the real thing," Goldberg explained in a phone interview. "It could be a third strike, or not," depending on the crime.

This last detail – providing a chance at a new trial and reduced or altered sentence for those already doing 25-to-life under the Three Strikes law – is non-negotiable for Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, or FACTS. "There's no way we can support anything that doesn't include retroactivity," said Geri Silva, FACTS's executive director.

It's also the part most likely to be jettisoned if Three Strikes reform ever does wend through the legislature to the ballot. Assemblyman Mark Leno, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee and a Proposition 66 supporter, doubts that any reform will be retroactive to permit a chance at resentencing for three-strikers now behind bars.

Schwarzenegger's press office had no comment on which way he leans on this matter, but his position will be critical. "You only have a chance of passing it if the governor has given even behind-the-scenes signals that he'll sign something," Leno said in a phone interview. Whatever passes the legislature before going to the ballot will not get there without a consensus led by the governor. "I don't think we're going to get anything retroactive through the legislature," Leno said.

But Goldberg expressed optimism both on the prospects for reform and getting retroactivity into the mix. "The fact that it took over $8 million in the last few days and scaring everyone, shows we have momentum," she said. The political opening may even be provided by Schwarzenegger, who, Goldberg argued, wants to maintain a moderate image. The initial strong support for Proposition 66 may have made him want to get out in front of some reform.

One wild card remaining is the powerhouse California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison guards union, which was central to the passage of the three strikes initiative in 1994 and funneled over a million dollars into defeating Proposition 66.

Their history suggests that they may obstruct any moves at reform, but it may be better for them politically to go along with any changes the governor tries to advance. They are further on the defensive as the prison system comes under increasing scrutiny for a series of apparent human rights abuses, from inmates forced to fight gladiator-style by armed guards to the inmate who bled to death in his cell while guards allegedly watched the Super Bowl and ignored his screams. The scandals have put the union under the microscope, accused by lawmakers and rights advocates of abetting a code of silence that covers for the perpetrators. CCPOA didn't return calls for comment.

FACTS' Silva says that the coalition that backed Proposition 66, which includes the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization for drug law reform founded by billionaire George Soros, is considering its next move.

"All the players are out there," says Silva, "all talking, all meeting so we can come together on something that includes retroactivity so that third strikers in for nonserious, nonviolent crimes can get resentenced."

"There could be a way to modify the law where there'd be broad consensus," said Barankin, of the attorney general's office. But could there be a consensus if a new initiative didn't provide a chance at resentencing for those already imprisoned? "We're getting way ahead of ourselves here," Barankin cautioned, "because no one has put pen to paper on this."

The Pot Thickens

If President George W. Bush's squeaky reelection is supposed to be a mandate on conservative moral values, how do you explain that 17 out of 20 pro-marijuana initiatives on ballots nationwide were approved?

For instance, look at Montana: Energized evangelical voters in this pro-Bush state led a charge that amended their state constitution to make gay marriage illegal, but they also approved of medical marijuana by a massive 62 to 38 percent. The churches obviously didn't mobilize against pot like White House Drug Czar John Walters urged them to do. In fact, this election may be the breakthrough on marijuana legalization in general: Conservatives nationwide came out in favor of pot as medicine.

Most notable was Alaska's losing proposal to make all marijuana legal, and to tax and regulate it like alcohol or tobacco. It was almost sure to lose, as was Oregon's marijuana dispensary proposal, but both powered the initiation far forward. A study by Boreal Economic Research & Analysis in Fairbanks powered the initiative, estimating that marijuana prohibition costs the state more than $28 million a year, but the state could generate $10-12 million annually if marijuana were taxed like alcohol and tobacco, for a possible budget gain of $40 million. That was persuasive to 43 percent of voters there, and the legislature has to debate it now for the first time.

"We're actually going to see that debate happening in at least Alaska and Nevada, but maybe also Vermont," says Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "So next year's going to be a new high water mark."

Were any of these proposals on the ballot November 2 breaking new ground?

Rob Kampia: The Montana initiative on medical marijuana is very similar to the nine states that already have medical marijuana laws, so it is now the 10th. Oregon is one of the nine states that has a medical marijuana law. The initiative allowed nonprofit dispensaries to sell medical marijuana to patients. No state has actually authorized a system where patients can go into a pharmacy-like establishment. If the Oregon measure had passed, then that would be the first state to allow the sale of marijuana in any context. There has never been a proposal like the one in Oregon. It's cutting edge.

Alaska's was bold.

The Alaska initiative was a slightly more conservative version of the radical initiative that failed in 2000, 41 to 59 percent. The new one would remove penalties for adults aged 21 and older who want to use marijuana for any reason. And it would tax and regulate it like tobacco and alcohol. And it also maintains penalties for selling marijuana to kids, driving under the influence, and smoking marijuana in public. The one from four years ago had the age at 18 instead of 21; it would have granted amnesty and restitution to marijuana offenders.

Is this the first time they would actually impose this kind of tax and regulation system since the original 1937 tax act?

Yeah, no system has ever been in place in this country, even before marijuana was outlawed in 1937. This vote was the fifth vote on a broad-based marijuana measure in the history of the country. The first failed in California in the early-'70s. The second failed in Oregon in 1986. The third failed in Alaska in 2000. The fourth failed in Nevada in 2002. And this is the fifth now.

What if it were to pass? Would users wake up the next day and find pot taxed out of reach?

The marijuana would have to be cheaper or people would just buy it from the criminal market. The tax revenues would be a substantial fraction of the state budget. Taxing and regulating marijuana would have basically allowed Alaskans to a) not raise taxes, and b) not dip into the permanent fund. So anyone who cares about money should vote for this, but of course a lot of people vote against these initiatives for what they consider to be moral reasons.

Seems like that would solve a problem in a lot of states, like California, where it's the number one cash crop, and Kentucky, and West Virginia ....

Oh, it sure would. Analysis on the national level shows that the tax revenues on the regulated marijuana market would be analogous to the tax revenues from tobacco and alcohol. They're all in about the $12 billion range. The war on marijuana nationally costs the taxpayers $12 billion, so if you actually ended the war and regulated, it would be a $24 billion turnaround, state, federal, and local revenues combined.

Any possibility that, like medical marijuana, this kind of overt broad taxation and regulation regime would subject people to federal prosecution?

In theory, the feds can arrest people for medical marijuana in the nine states now, and in theory the feds could arrest people for recreational marijuana use in Alaska if the initiative had passed. It's the same dynamic. In reality, the feds won't be arresting people for personal use and personal possession.

In California they've been all over the medical marijuana dispensaries.

As you've seen in California, the feds go after a couple dispensaries but leave most of them alone, and it really kind of depends on how big they are, how politically savvy the people running it are, etc. The feds kind of just pick and choose. The same thing would happen in Alaska. The feds might go to one of two to try to make a point and scare the rest, but ultimately the American entrepreneurial spirit will prevail.

What happens since it lost?

Alaska courts have ruled that the possession and use of up to four ounces of marijuana by adults 21 and older in the privacy of their home is legal. The statewide Alaska court of appeals reaffirmed this in August 2003. Pretty radical. It should have been on the front page of every newspaper. But where are these adults going to buy it? They either have to buy it from drug dealers or from regulated establishments, which benefits the taxpayers. In the losing scenario, we still have to go to the legislature to make sure that they don't screw around with the court victory.

In Nevada in 2002, Drug Czar John Walters used a lot of federal money to defeat that broad legalization initiative. Did that happen this time?

Yes. The feds used taxpayer money to campaign against us in all three of our initiative states, cruising around the state, flying around, staying in hotels, and holding news conferences.

And what kind of effect did that have?

The thing that mattered in Nevada was the fact that the drug czar has a budget of about $200 million a year to spend on so-called anti-drug advertising. He ran anti-marijuana ads that scared the people about marijuana. They showed teenagers running over a little girl on a bicycle, and a teenager smoking pot and shooting his friend, and another teenager getting pregnant after smoking pot, and on and on. The debate ultimately devolved into whether or not the instances of marijuana DUI would increase under a marijuana regulatory scheme.

They didn't do these ad buys this time?

It appears not. We've been giving them a hard time in Congress, because Congress has to actually appropriate this money every year. We've had two appropriations cycles where we've been lobbying and talking to members of Congress. I'm just hypothesizing here. I'm quite pleased that they're not running their stupid ads. They have much more money than we do.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros made his money through drug dealers because he backed some of these initiatives. Has that hurt funding for you guys at all?

That's a good question. The answer is no. The lies from Hastert and others have not affected that one iota, nor will it affect it in the future. When federal officials lie about these guys, that only emboldens them. Ultimately, it reduces Hastert's credibility and it might give us a little boost. There were no anti-marijuana proposals on any ballots, so we didn't lose one inch of ground.

Medical Pot Users Get Burnt

Lynn and Judy Osburn were preparing for a day of working with their horses on Sept. 28, 2001, when they heard the deep thump of a helicopter suddenly shattering the silence of the Ozena Valley. Sitting in the kitchen of their house in the Los Padres National Forest, their hearts sank. A line of 15 unmarked SUVs and one Ventura County Sheriff's car pulled up to their horse gate. As the caravan roared up the gravel drive, their four dogs exploded in furious barking and horses scattered through the sage scrub in a panic.

The Osburns knew instantly what was going down. Every county and federal official from Ventura to downtown L.A. knew they grew marijuana; the Osburns had met with them and discussed it openly. Somewhere on the property was allegedly a field of 270 tall, stinky plants about ready to harvest. Lynn, 53, and Judy, 50, gathered themselves. They stepped into the brilliant mountain light, hands high so no one would have any reason to shoot.

"Their lead investigator told us they didn't want to be there," says Lynn, sitting at his kitchen table. "They had argued for a long time with their superiors that this wasn't what they should be doing. They were very apologetic. It was a very strange occasion."

Under California state law, the Osburns' bumper weed crop was perfectly legal. They were the state-approved growers for the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center (LACRC), a West Hollywood medical marijuana co-op operating legally under Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which legalizes the use of pot as physician-prescribed medicine. The dope cultivated by the Osburns would relieve the symptoms of 960 registered patients in L.A., who used it to treat the wasting associated with AIDS, chemotherapy nausea, chronic pain and glaucoma, among other conditions.

But the agents who poured out of these vehicles, some dressed in camouflage and many wearing ski masks, weren't bound by state law. They were mostly L.A.-based agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, pot is a Schedule 1 narcotic, which is defined as having "no medicinal use." Therefore, in the Twilight Zone that is the federal bureaucracy, medical marijuana doesn't exist. They had a warrant from the US Attorney's office in L.A.

Since 2001, the Bush Administration -- and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Drug Czar John Walters, and ex-DEA director Asa Hutchinson, in particular -- have openly defied the sovereignty of California voters by raiding pot co-ops and making selective arrests of 30 medical pot users and growers. They have gone after the highest-profile individuals, including many who passed the original ballot initiative. Some have been sent up on federal prison sentences as long as 10 years. The Osburns were just such a catch: They had been the key organizers of Prop 215 support in Ventura County.

"This is their strategy, and I think it's backfiring," says Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group. "Every one of these cases is demoralizing to the DEA, and builds up public sentiment against them."

This new crackdown, which has isolated the DEA from local cops and splintered local drug task forces across the state, has now made pot into a conservative issue. President Bush, who campaigned on a pro-state's rights agenda concerning potentially racist matters like flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse, or local environmental control, has reversed himself and increased federal power in order to fight voter-approved marijuana. Medical pot is legal in some form in nine states, but only California activists have been the victims of the administration's moral agenda.

The state's rights implications of this assault have now greatly overshadowed Ashcroft's crowing about the need to prosecute the Drug War or fight terrorism. An unlikely coalition of staunch conservatives and outraged liberals have backed two new bills in Congress to address this conflict.

As Ventura County Sheriffs deputies stood aside, the DEA agents marched out to the Osburns' weedpatch and pulled up every plant. They did not draw their guns. They loaded up the huge stack of weed into their trucks and left. The Osburns weren't arrested, not even handcuffed. They were left with a choice: Go without their medicine, which they both use under prescription to treat chronic pain, or become criminals by buying on the black market.

"The Bush administration would like to have patients locked away in prison until they die of whatever disease their doctor recommended the marijuana for," says Lynn, his anger mounting. "They've never attacked Prop 215 or any of the laws from the eight other states. The Supreme Court hasn't overruled it. Instead, they've gone after patients. This is his so-called 'compassionate conservatism.'"

It would be over a year before any charges would be filed against the Osburns. But in the fall of 2002, they were busted again for growing 35 plants for medical use, and this time L.A.-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald threw the book at them, prosecuting for both raids. Their case goes to trial this fall, where a conviction could mean 40 years in prison, and possibly the forfeiture of their 60-acre ranch.

They're scared, but they're hoping to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and settle this matter once and for all: Are states truly free to make their own law and police their own population, as the constitution clearly guarantees? Or does this power rest in the hands of a few appointed federal chiefs who set the nation's moral agenda?

State's Rights Abandoned

Unlike George W. Bush, Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, did not squeak by at the ballot box. It was approved by a relative landslide at 55.7 percent. This creates a tremendous conflict for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat. He voted for 215 because he felt it was humane policy. But he does not favor the legalization of drugs in general, and under his tenure meth labs and remote marijuana fields have been snagged in record numbers. Now, as the state's top cop, his mandate under 215 puts him in a clash with the feds, who have busted 40 prescription-carrying medical pot users and growers since 9/11, and are hustling to give them lengthy sentences.

The DEA's position is clear. "The DEA does not think that marijuana is a medicine," explains Special Agent Richard Meyer, information officer for the DEA in San Francisco. "[In California], there may be some support for medical marijuana, but the U.S. population as a whole is against it. We have to uphold federal law." "Prop 215 got about 5 million votes," says Hallye Jordan, Lockyer's press secretary. "That's a huge number. The Attorney General is frustrated that today we find ourselves embroiled with these types of fights with the Bush Administration over a wide variety of issues, where the states are being blocked by federal authorities from implementing state law."

It's not just pot laws. Jordan points out that the Bush Administration has also actively blocked state laws regarding consumer protection, financial privacy, the environment, and gun control. In Oregon, John Ashcroft has worked feverishly -- and openly -- to undermine a voter-approved assisted suicide law. "What we have right now is not a nation governed by the will of the people," says Brenda Grantland, an attorney for Judy Osburn. "But one in which the few elected political leaders decide what the law is. It doesn't matter what the voters say. It's not a democracy, it's an oligarchy."

When the DEA moved in fall 2002 to bust a Santa Cruz collective known as the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), regarded as the most refined model for medical marijuana distribution in the state, the chief of police in San Jose was so upset he pulled all his officers off a DEA-led joint task force. Lockyer then fired off a terse letter to then-DEA chief Asa Hutchinson (now at the Dept. of Homeland Security). Calling the DEA raids "harassment," Lockyer said they were "wasteful, unwise, and surprisingly insensitive." Then he laid out the complaint shared by many in the state and in congress:

"While I am acutely aware that federal law conflicts with California's on this subject and needs to be reconciled, surely an Administration with a proper sense of balance, proportion, and respect for states' rights could and should reconsider the DEA's policy and redirect its resources to concentrate fully on the priorities we share: the destruction of criminal narcotics organizations, the interruption of commerce in drugs far more dangerous than marijuana, and choking the flow of drug money to terrorists."

Hutchinson, whose DEA once raided a Bay Area pot club on the same day he made a pro-Drug War speech in San Francisco, replied to Lockyer's letter. First, he toed the line of every federal Administration since Nixon, insisting that marijuana's medical merits are unproven. Then he pulled out a charge which the DEA repeats today, but for which no evidence has ever been given, writing that Prop 215 was "being abused to facilitate traditional illegal marijuana trafficking and associated crime."

Hutchinson never met with Lockyer, and the message was unmistakable: The Bush Administration didn't care what the voters wanted.

Congressman Ron Paul [R-TX], a conservative from Bush's home state, sees this as a betrayal by the president. Along with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher [R-CA] from Huntington Beach, he has backed the newly-renamed State's Rights to Medical Marijuana Act (HR2233), a version of pro-medical pot legislation that has been introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) every year since the early 1980s. It has never even moved into committee, much less to a vote. But the state's rights conflict gives new urgency to the bill, now with 21 sponsors, which seeks to re-schedule marijuana to include medical use in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. This is one of two bills now before Congress seeking to reconcile the conflict.

"Do states have the right to set their own policies regulating medical marijuana? For those who still believe states have rights under the Ninth and Tenth amendments, the answer is clearly yes," Paul said in a statement. "For too long the federal government has used the 'War on Drugs' as justification for pre-empting more and more state criminal and regulatory laws."

Rohrabacher press secretary Aaron Lewis says the congressman, who chooses not to speak on the issue, agrees. "He simply sees this as a state's rights issue," he says.

The DEA's Meyer says he welcomes some kind of reconciliation of the legal impasse. "We are all for that. We hope there is some type of agreement," he says. "In the meantime, we have to enforce the laws of the land."

Back to the Black Market

Three weeks after uprooting the LACRC's crop on the Osburn ranch, the DEA raided the Center itself. In the mid-morning of October 25, about 10 people were on hand to fill prescriptions at the West Hollywood storefront. Three days a week, the center distributed about six pounds of pot to its 960 patients. Just as at the Osburns, no one was arrested in the action. Agents just backed a big truck up to the rear door and cleared the place out in a matter of hours, taking the weed, the computers, the patient's medical files, and 400 plants plus lights and timers from the basement grow room.

West Hollywood City Council members, who had worked hard with the LACRC in order to work out a system of identity cards for the patients, and helped purchase the building, stood in the street in protest. At an unprecedented press conference, members of the council, the Center, and the L.A. Sheriffs Dept. condemned the DEA for their actions.

"People relied on this marijuana for relief, and that's a humanistic problem," said Lynda Castro, West Hollywood station captain for the L.A. Sheriffs Dept., in an interview after the raid. "The city of West Hollywood and the community here really took exception to the fact that the DEA came in against a club that was operating with great integrity."

LACRC President Scott Imler, 44, was present at the raid. A former school teacher from Santa Cruz, he helped campaign for legalized medical marijuana there, and helped write Prop 215 itself. Unlike many pot clubs in the Bay Area, which found new locations and re-opened under more clandestine conditions, the LACRC closed permanently. Soon, the feds began still-ongoing forfeiture proceedings against the building, which was co-owned by the Center and the city.

"We felt there wouldn't be any charges," says Imler. "They had convened grand juries in January 2002, and no indictment issued from that. Then the Osburns chose to replant, I don't know if that had anything to do with them coming down on us."

In November 2002, the U.S. Attorney offered a plea bargain to Imler, Center Vice President Jeffrey Farrington, and Treasurer Jeffrey Yablan: Accept guilt for one count of Maintaining a Drug House, the old crackhouse law, or get charged with that plus manufacturing and RICO conspiracy charges, with big mandatory sentences.

It couldn't have come at a worse time. Imler, who used pot for years to control epileptic seizures and spasticity, has now developed cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy at the time of this writing. Farrington has glaucoma, and Yablan has AIDS.

So why not go to court and argue that they were operating legally under state law? This raises the other, almost more infuriating consequence of the federal refusal to accept medical pot: No mention of Prop 215, medical use of pot, or what is called a "medical necessity" defense is allowed in these cases. This makes medical marijuana users and growers sitting ducks, as prosecutors use their openness in complying with the state law against them, producing their weed, plants, prescriptions, medical records, and distribution documents as irrefutable proof of guilt. Juries are forced to convict -- even when it goes against their conscience.

"It's pretty clear that no one's being allowed to raise Prop 215 in these cases, so basically this meant that we'd be going to jail," says Imler. "So the three of us swallowed hard, and decided that it was either go to jail for a long time or take a plea and see if we could get less time." Sentencing for Farrington and Yablan has been set for September. Imler's has been delayed due to his treatments.

The block against using Prop 215 in federal court stems from a May 2001 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a case involving the Oakland Cannabis Buyer's Cooperative (OCBC), the nation's high court ruled only that there could be no medical necessity defense in a case involving marijuana, because pot was not scheduled as having any medical use under federal law. The court did not, however, rule 215 unconstitutional. But this ruling made it clear that any documented medical user would lose in court, and lose badly.

This was Ashcroft's silver bullet. The DEA had been busting people for years in California, but the confusion over the law made it difficult to convict as Prop 215 information invariably ended up before the jurors. Lockyer's predecessor, Dan Lungren, was less enamored of Prop 215, and worked with the DEA to keep medical users in the courts, wrangling endlessly over these questions. But after May, 2001, all that changed.

Ask Ed

Just exactly what this means for patients who smoke pot became clear in the recent trial of weed guru Ed Rosenthal, 58. The author of over a dozen books about dope, and known worldwide for his "Ask Ed" column in High Times magazine, Rosenthal was growing marijuana as an officer of the city of Oakland, Calif. His only profit from the business came from his books: He was writing about the uses of marijuana's active ingredient, THC, to alleviate the symptoms of not only cancer and AIDS, but also multiple sclerosis and depression.

According to city officials, Rosenthal enjoyed the same kind of immunity as a cop in handling the pot. In February 2002, however, the DEA seized 3,163 plants at his West Oakland warehouse grow facility. The high number of plants enabled federal prosecutors to try him under the "kingpin" law, reserved for major drug dealers. He faced a possible sentence of 5-to-85 years. His wife, publisher Jane Klein, and pre-teen daughter were horrified.

In the trial, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer was among the first to apply the new Supreme Court ruling. Rosenthal's attorneys were expressly forbidden to present medical marijuana information to the jurors in any way.

Breyer later said in a statement: "That may not be what the law should say, but that's what it does say. I'm not congress. I'm not the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]." The judge then screened 80 potential jurors until he found a dozen who knew nothing about Prop 215.

Predictably, considering the mountain of evidence, they convicted Rosenthal. Minutes after the trial, however, there was a jury revolt as activists and reporters informed the jurors of the consequences of their verdict. Nine of the twelve jurors later rescinded their guilty votes and publicly denounced Breyer for withholding information.

Charles Sackett, the jury foreman in the case, convicted Rosenthal because he thought he was a drug dealer. He recalls that day, "When I went out of the jury deliberation room into a public area, a newspaper reporter asked, 'Did you realize you just overturned the state medical marijuana law?' No. 'Did your realize this man was deputized by the County of Oakland and the State of California to grow medical marijuana?' No.

"I went down 19 floors seething. I was so angry. I almost got in my car and drove away, then I thought: This is not right. I went back to the courthouse, to where all the reporters were gathered, and I said to them, 'I was the jury foreman, do you want to ask me any questions?'"

By that time, a storm had been unleashed. Sackett told one reporter at the scene, "Personally, I hope he appeals and wins." The jurors then organized amongst themselves and began a campaign to affect Rosenthal's sentencing. They wrote a letter to Judge Breyer asking him not to send Rosenthal to prison, and protesting the way they were handled. Similar letters came from Lockyer and members of Congress.

On June 4, Breyer shocked everyone involved in the case by sentencing Rosenthal to one day on all three of his charges, served concurrently, then gave him credit for time served. Prosecutors were furious, having recommended six and a half years. Rosenthal was free, but still a convicted felon, and under probation. He is appealing.

Other medical marijuana users and growers convicted in the Ninth Circuit, where Breyer sits, had not fared so well. Bryan Epis, a Northern California pot club grower, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison because of the same restrictions on entering Prop 215 into evidence.

For many, the Rosenthal verdict seemed to be a sign. Keith Stroup, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a statement: ""It should send a strong message to the Bush administration to stop wasting federal resources arresting and prosecuting medicinal marijuana patients and their care givers."

Tom Mrozek, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office in L.A., said he was unable to comment on how the sentence would affect the Osburns case.

The DEA's Meyer was more forthcoming. "It doesn't make any difference to us if somebody gets a one-day sentence or a ten-year sentence," he says. "Our job is to enforce the Controlled Substances Act."

Long Hot Summer

The Rosenthal decision hasn't changed the Osburns' outlook much. Their trial comes up in October, and meanwhile they endure house arrest (Judy can travel, with restrictions, Lynn cannot) and the sobering prospect that they still might lose their ranch.

"We think the DEA will keep going after these cases as long as they are ordered to from Washington DC, and as long as they get convictions," the couple wrote via email from their home. "And it still remains to be seen whether or not the government will appeal Ed's sentence."

It seems impossible that anything could touch them up in the Ozena Valley. There's no phone service in this remote corner of Northeast Ventura county, about 45 miles north of Ojai. To make a call, you have to drive into Frasier. There's only a U.S. Forest Service ranger station and a small community of homesteads with, as Judy points out, "30 registered voters." They do have electricity, and a satellite-delivered email service, a lot of it from their lawyers.

The Osburns only keep two Tennessee Walking horses on the ranch now, for the sake of morale as much as anything else. Their two businesses, horse training and publishing -- Judy has written several books about civil forfeiture, and how to beat it -- have both pretty much ground to a halt.

As we stand by the barn, they talk about how they've placed some hope in the "Truth In Trials Act," HR1717, a new bill introduced into congress by Rohrabacher and Sam Farr (D-CA). It would allow for the inclusion of information about Prop 215 and medical marijuana into federal trials. They also hope it comes up for a vote in time to affect their case. Judge A. Howard Matz, who is presiding, has already announced that he is observing the no-215 restrictions.

"So far, every judge in the federal system in this state has toed the Breyer line," says Lynn. "As long as no one gets a defense, it gets very hard for the jury to acquit. And they continue to terrorize sick people that should be protected under state law. Because the United States Supreme Court has not declared Prop 215 unconstitutional at all."

Both Brenda Grantland and the Osburns' trial lawyer, William Panzer, feel the Osburns will lose their case. But they're leaning into the appeal. Grantland points out that there are two separate challenges to federal authority in the case, too technical to go into here, that might make it interesting to the Supreme Court. Neither lawyer thinks they're going to get a one-day sentence.

"The Osburns are being treated differently than the other medical cases," says Panzer. "They're going hard after these people. I suspect that's because they had a civil forfeiture case against the Osburns years ago that the U.S. Attorneys lost. So they want to get back at them."

"A lot of people in elective office got there by being in favor of the politics of prohibition," says Lynn, nodding, "and these people have vested interests."

Dean Kuipers is deputy editor of LA CityBeat and LA ValleyBeat.

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