August 11, 2003 MARIJUANA By Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer SANTA CRUZ — As another summer day fades, the sick and dying begin to gather. An elderly woman leans unsteadily on her walker. A hip young paraplegic fellow glides his electric wheelchair past a dapper old man clutching a cane. Men wiry with AIDS sidle into folding chairs in the cramped meeting hall. A blind man hunkers at the edge of the throng. There is talk of housing and finances, discussions of dipping health and impending death. They finish by flouting federal law. Marijuana, deemed illegal by the U.S. for any purpose, is dispensed in small baggies to the group, most of them terminally ill with AIDS or cancer. They say their brand of medicine, justified under California's 1996 medicinal marijuana initiative, brings relief from pain and suffering. But it has also brought the federal government down on the 220-member Santa Cruz collective, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana. Last year, drug agents arrested WAMM's founders, Valerie and Mike Corral, during a raid of the group's small pot garden on a secluded hillside terrace up the coast. The bust, part of a broader campaign by the Bush administration to trip up California's medical marijuana movement, prompted a publicity backlash. With the national media watching, Santa Cruz council members invited WAMM activists to conduct their weekly pot handout at City Hall. Now the city and county of Santa Cruz, a liberal bastion, have joined the medical marijuana collective in a lawsuit against Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and the U.S. government. Despite the unequivocal U.S. stance against marijuana, these advocates argue that their cultivation and use of pot — approved by Santa Cruz police, free of profit motive, unfettered by illegal transport over state lines — is a constitutionally protected right that trumps federal narcotics laws. They want to grow marijuana free of federal raids. U.S. officials, who consider medical marijuana a Trojan horse for the drug legalization movement, counter that the law prohibits the use of pot by anyone, even the seriously ill. A federal judge in San Jose is expected to decide the case within the month. Whatever the ruling, the legal battle appears destined to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Gerald Uelmen, the University of Santa Clara law professor who served on O.J. Simpson's defense team and now represents WAMM, figures he's found the perfect test case, "the gold standard" for a credible medical marijuana dispensary. * Like a Hospice Fifty or more cannabis clubs sprang up after voters approved California's Proposition 215. Few are left. Some storefront outfits fostered a party atmosphere, selling pot to anyone with a doctor's note, no questions asked. WAMM earned credibility as a watertight dispensary, a mix of button-down pharmacy and socialist farming collective. Patients are carefully screened, then sign a pledge to treat their pot like a prescription drug, sharing it with no one. Each doctor recommendation is vetted for authenticity. "They've created a system that's more like a hospice than anything else," Uelmen says. "I've heard people compare Valerie to Mother Teresa. She's motivated by compassion." WAMM has won civic proclamations and plaudits from state leaders. It has also seen 140 patients pass away. Snapshots of the departed dot a wall at its headquarters, a corrugated-steel building also harboring a surfboard maker. Since the raid, 14 have died. Valerie Corral has been at nearly every bedside. Such humanitarian acts aren't lost on U.S. officials. Special Agent Richard Meyer, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman, says he understands Corral's devotion. But he finds her embrace of marijuana as a cure-all more than a bit disingenuous. "Everyone knows this is simply a recreational drug," he says. "I don't think it's remarkable to give dying people something unproven as medicine. There's a lot more ways to help the sick than handing out marijuana." * Talking Politics At 6:30 p.m., Valerie Corral calls WAMM's weekly meeting to order. First up is political chatter. Corral is 51, with dark hair and a peaceful soul. But on this night she is Mother Teresa with an attitude. She rails against President Bush for pushing to punish doctors who recommend pot. "It's the war against California medical marijuana amping up," she tells the 50 patients. "But there's still a Bill of Rights. It's shredded, but we're slowly pasting it back together." The crowd hoots. They suffer an eclectic mix of infirmities. Aside from the AIDS and cancer patients, there are polio survivors in wheelchairs and patients with multiple sclerosis, lupus and glaucoma. In his wheelchair, Zachary Woodford wears a wry smile. Now 22, he was left a paraplegic in a skateboarding accident a couple of years back. Raised a strict Christian, Woodford tells his religious friends that WAMM isn't a pot club; it's a fellowship. And he never gets high, Woodford insists. A single puff, usually before bed, eases spasms and pain. With other medications, it helps. "There's no single miracle cure," he says. "The doctors mix and match. It's finding the right balance that works for you." Hal Margolin, 70, knows that balance. A retired businessman who ran a clothing company, Margolin suffers from a degenerative spinal condition that causes constant pain. He relies on a cane to walk. He is one of the seven WAMM patients listed on the federal lawsuit. But when he first visited the collective three years ago, Margolin didn't know what to expect. "I didn't want to go down with all the potheads in Santa Cruz." He found a crowd more straight than stoner. About a dozen were in wheelchairs, a bunch had crutches or canes. "They looked like death warmed over," Margolin recalled, saying he thought, " 'This isn't what I expected.' " * No Charges, Yet A few hours before the weekly meeting, the Corrals are wandering through the group's moribund marijuana garden in a woodsy canyon up the coast. In the raid last September, drug agents yanked 167 marijuana plants and arrested the Corrals. The couple have not been charged with anything but remain wary. Even without a court case, federal officials could use an asset forfeiture action to strip them of their property and possessions. The DEA's Meyer said the case remains under review. Valerie Corral says marijuana is just a small part of what they do. There are yoga classes, a women's group. Bedside vigils for the dying are common. "The federal government is misinterpreting what we're about," she says. Mike Corral, 54, the group's master gardener, says the U.S. is trampling an "inalienable right," the ability of seriously ill patients to seek relief. This, he says, seems "the lowest form of persecution." Up the slope is another sacred spot for WAMM — a tiny ridge-top cemetery. The ashes of 15 patients lie here. Little grave markers poke through the weeds. "This is John Paul Taylor," says Valerie Corral, pointing to a chunk of marble. He died at 50 of AIDS. Susan Conroy, dead of cancer at 45, chose a Buddhist statue. "The first person who called us for help is under this rock," Mike says, pointing to the resting spot of Harold Allen. Allen had a ready answer for doubters, Valerie recalled. "He'd say: 'Even if you don't think marijuana is medicine, humor me. I'm dying.' " * Easing Seizures Activism arrived with an auto accident. In 1973, Valerie's VW bug flipped in the desert north of Reno. Just 20, she suffered severe brain trauma. For months, seizures savaged her. Prescription drugs sent her swimming through the day in a stupor. Mike Corral, then her boyfriend, read about research that found marijuana controlled seizures in laboratory rats. They gave pot a try, and she said her health problems began to dissolve. The couple settled for the next two decades into a back-to-the-land existence in the Santa Cruz Mountains, growing just enough marijuana to provide Valerie relief. But in 1992, the Santa Cruz County sheriff arrested them for cultivating five pot plants. Charges were dropped, but Valerie Corral became the face of Santa Cruz's wildly successful medical marijuana initiative. A second arrest a year later again brought no charges, but a wave of sick folks began calling to learn more. The couple responded by launching WAMM in 1993. Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly has marveled at it all for 10 years. "You can't be around Mike and Val without sensing their compassion and integrity," Reilly says. "Everyone knows the group isn't about recreational drug use. WAMM should be a research project for the feds, not a target." Such testimonials are not without scientific backing. Though pot's medical efficacy remains highly contentious, a 1999 Institute of Medicine report found patients suffering nausea, pain and appetite loss might get "broad spectrum relief not found in any other single medication" by using marijuana. * Different Needs Forty-five minutes into WAMM's Tuesday night meeting, a man in a blue blazer and a conservative red tie wanders in. He is a caregiver for a quadriplegic in San Jose, arriving for the patient's weekly dose of pot. There are many of these. Dorothy Gibbs is 93 years old, a great-great-grandmother confined to her mobile home by post-polio syndrome. Today, she's hospitalized with a broken hip. WAMM members talk about getting Gibbs her ration of Mother's Milk, a gritty mix of pot and soy. Valerie Corral has bad news for the crowd: Fund-raising is flagging; no one sends big checks to an outfit under federal scrutiny. "I'm begging again," she says, noting that weekly attendance also has slipped. "It's not only the garden. They hit our morale. We can't let our spirit flag. We're bigger than this." Ron Baum, 53, vows to do whatever it takes. He has survived with HIV for 23 years, "when they didn't have a name for it." He has survived nine bouts with pneumonia, and has buried friends and his lover. He doesn't want WAMM to wither. "I joke that we're an HMO," chimes in Suzanne Pfeil, 44, a mother of three who gets around in a wheelchair. "As sick as you are, there's always someone sicker in WAMM." As the meeting ends, the crowd files into line for their weekly marijuana ration. Ray Bostick, 50, waits for his son, who is 21 and has AIDS. Bostick is a Mississippi transplant and admitted straight arrow. He hates illegal trafficking and supports the war on drugs. But when his son grew violently ill from HIV medications, the family turned to WAMM. "I'm still against recreational drug use, but this is different," Bostick said. "This works for him. I don't think he'd be here without it." His son, outfitted in a black T-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush and the words "Not My President," saunters up coolly. He slides the rolled up bag of marijuana into a pocket. Then he gives his father a hug.