Half an Ounce of Healing

The desperately ill members of a Santa Cruz marijuana club aren't growing pot to get high or make money. They just want to find some relief.

Dorothy Gibbs is lying in bed in her trailer, barely able to move. It is a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Santa Cruz, the October sun as full as July's. The curtains in Gibbs' room are half open; she is squinting as though the light stings her eyes. But her 90-year-old face, framed by a snowy froth of hair, looks cheerful, almost youthful. "I woke up in pain this morning," she says, "but then I took the marijuana and it made things better."

She reaches for an eight-ounce bottle of brown liquid on a bedside tray and takes a swig. The tonic, a concoction of soy milk and marijuana known as Mother's Milk, looks like the muddy sand in a child's pail. "It doesn't taste like much of anything," she says with a shrug. "It just makes me feel better."

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Ten years ago, Gibbs, who had developed polio as an infant, was stricken by postpolio syndrome, leaving her arms nearly useless and her nerves on fire. Two years ago, at the suggestion of her full-time visiting nurse, she tried pot for the pain. ("I tried smoking it first," she says, "but it hurt my throat.") Now she is one of about 200 members of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, or WAMM, a Santa Cruz, California, cannabis collective run by and for people who are very ill.

If WAMM, the first medical marijuana club in the country to be granted nonprofit status, will not convince skeptics that cannabis may have a healthy purpose, nothing will. The collective, which grows its own marijuana and distributes it free to its members each week, is no pot party. About 85 percent of its members are terminally ill. Many of those who line up at the club's small, borrowed storefront every Tuesday evening had not used the drug before they developed life-threatening illnesses like cancer and AIDS. Others hadn't tried it before exhausting a medicine chest's worth of pharmaceuticals for chronic, debilitating ailments like postpolio syndrome or epilepsy. Relatively few have used marijuana the way Bill Clinton did in college, for fun.

The Tuesday night WAMM line is a gallery of illness. People come in wheelchairs, using walkers, clutching canes, bald from chemotherapy, gaunt, hollow-eyed, nearly wasted. The healthiest looking are the caregivers who come to pick up pot for members who are too ill to come themselves.

But it is not a grim group. After sitting in on five WAMM meetings, led by its firebrand director, Valerie Leveroni Corral, I was most struck by how spirited, even happy, members sounded. People announced picnic lunches, organized a weekend in Reno, offered rides, memorialized the latest member to die with fond remembrances and spirited anecdotes. They also complained, like a family around the dinner table. In one meeting, a member with AIDS griped about having to wait around for an hour listening to everyone's "issues" before the marijuana is doled out: "I'm in a room full of sick people," he said. "I don't exactly feel great about that when my T-cell count is down." That led to an hour of collective soul-searching on just what WAMM is supposed to be -- a community or a marijuana dispensary.

With laws legalizing medical marijuana already in effect in California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, and Hawaii (and with initiatives recently approved in Colorado and Nevada), medical marijuana groups around the country have been calling on WAMM to see how patient-run collectives ought to operate. It is not easy. Federal law supersedes state law, and the government refuses to budge in classifying marijuana as a dangerous, illegal narcotic -- and a gateway to harder drugs -- with no medical value. This means that in states where medical marijuana is legal, local and state law enforcement may leave the collectives alone but the Department of Justice could still step in, shut down the clubs, and prosecute patients and their caregivers. In 1999, an Institute of Medicine report commissioned by President Clinton's then drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, concluded that patients suffering from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss might find "broad spectrum relief not found in any other single medication" by using marijuana. But that failed to alter the federal government's position that possessing marijuana for any reason should be a crime.

There is an encouraging development in the battle for legitimacy: In September, ruling on a class-action suit filed against the government by medical marijuana advocates, including WAMM, federal Judge William Alsup of the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco ruled that the government could not punish doctors who recommend the benefits of marijuana to their patients. And while the federal government has threatened to prosecute medical marijuana patients, that seems increasingly unlikely given the public's growing acceptance of the drug as medicinal.

Medical marijuana clubs began quietly operating in the early 1990s in response to the AIDS crisis, and in 1996 California passed a groundbreaking voter initiative, Proposition 215, that legalized possession of marijuana for patients with a doctor's recommendation who are suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and other illnesses. But the fight for the right to exist is far from over. Especially since the passage of Prop. 215, the federal government (or state and local police, invoking federal law) has continued to shut down marijuana clubs in California and has repeatedly confiscated plants.

WAMM was started in 1993, lucky to be born in Santa Cruz. The coastal city about 75 miles south of San Francisco is one of the most tolerant in the country. Here's a place where old and young hippies sit cross-legged on the sidewalk, strumming guitars all day, where the City Council proposed "sleeping zones" for the homeless (until the town was inundated by urban campers from all over the West), and where the nation's first bed and breakfast for medical marijuana users opened last year with great fanfare. True to form, Santa Cruz has honored WAMM with official proclamations and vowed to defend the collective's right to exist. The city's position, endorsed by the mayor, district attorney, and chief of police, is that Santa Cruz will abide by California's medical marijuana law, and never mind the feds.

In fact, WAMM runs a tight ship. It is strict about membership, admitting only the very sick, and only those with a written recommendation from a doctor who agrees to monitor the use of marijuana in the patient's treatment. The club also preaches respect for the law. Except for the location of its marijuana garden, deep in the Santa Cruz mountains, it is not secretive about how it operates. Valerie Corral occasionally counsels officials in cities throughout California on how best to implement and abide by Prop. 215. She recommends that medical marijuana collectives operate openly and, as WAMM has done, work with law enforcement officials to make sure they are operating in accordance with state law.

"It's imperative that we patients are really respectful to the law so that we can prove that we're not trying to pull the wool over the eyes of law enforcement," said Corral, an epileptic who uses marijuana to control seizures and alleviate mind-stopping headaches. "For police, their experience is still the mindset of marijuana being a gateway drug, of the horror that drugs cause in people's lives. Our job is to show that it's so much more of a medicine than it is a problem."

For Corral, WAMM is much more of a communal support group than a marijuana dispensary. For WAMM, Corral is much more of a spiritual leader than a director. It is almost impossible to imagine the organization without her. She is 48 years old, about five feet tall, with an auburn pageboy, a collection of tiny gold hoops in her left ear, and Cher's cheekbones. In part, she provides the public face of WAMM: She speaks to politicians, was appointed to the California Attorney General's task force on Prop. 215, testifies at hearings on medical marijuana, and organizes memorials for WAMM members. She is also the resident Best Friend and therapist at WAMM. Unsolicited, members would come up to me and call her their angel or savior. But Corral quickly points out that she has lots of help behind the scenes. Her husband of 22 years, Mike, a slim man with a shaved head, wide smile, and thick dark eyebrows, grows and cultivates the marijuana WAMM gives away in a garden that has become a kind of sacred place for the collective.

The Corrals are expert growers, having started more than 25 years ago following a freak car accident that left Valerie wracked by seizures. The accident happened in 1973, when she was 20. She was near Reno, the passenger in a Volkswagen Beetle being driven by her friend. "I could see an old plane in the distance," Corral recalled. "It was flying very low as it came near. We thought it maybe had to make an emergency landing." The plane flew by, then, seemingly lost, looped around and roared back toward them. The torque of the plane caused the VW to cartwheel. Corral's friend shattered the left side of her body; Corral suffered severe brain trauma, leading to blackouts and epileptic seizures, up to five a day.

For more than two years, Corral walked around in a sedated stupor. Hooked on Percodan, Valium, and Mysoline, she was obsessed with changing medications and trying different dosages to control her seizures. By then, she was living with Mike, who had become her caretaker. He found an article about how marijuana helped control seizures in laboratory animals and procured some for Valerie. "That changed our lives," she said, sitting in her living room in a rare moment of quiet, with Mike by her side. "I would take marijuana and the seizures diminished. By 1977, I was seizure free." She still suffers migraine headaches and, to prevent seizures and control nausea, smokes marijuana regularly, although not daily.

The Corrals bought their first piece of property in the Santa Cruz mountains with part of the $40,000 insurance settlement she eventually received from her accident and began growing marijuana in an organic garden. Eventually, they began giving some of it away to people they knew who were dying of cancer.

Luckily for WAMM, the couple has few expenses. The Corrals own their own home, and a second piece of property and some stock market investments provide their income. A modest lifestyle -- a blue-jeans wardrobe and a house filled with a cozy mishmash of old furniture -- allows them to devote themselves to WAMM full-time.

In 1992, the local sheriff arrested the Corrals on felony charges for cultivating five marijuana plants in their front yard. The district attorney vowed to seek the maximum penalty for the crime: three years in state prison. Instead, all charges were dropped when the district attorney decided that no jury would convict them. A year later, they were arrested again. The highly publicized arrests prompted a flood of calls from people who wanted to use marijuana for their illnesses. The Corrals began working as advocates for medical marijuana and started WAMM that year.

"You have a car accident and you think you get a brain trauma out of it," Valerie said, "and instead, it becomes this wonderful opportunity to meet people at the most crucial time in their lives." She has watched more than 80 members of WAMM die over the years. Many more, given the nature of the members' illnesses, will die over the next few years. But she firmly believes that WAMM enhances the quality and longevity of sick people's lives, and not just because of the marijuana. Members become friends, almost like family. Two members who met at the Tuesday meetings got married last summer. Some have become outspoken advocates of medical marijuana in their own right. "One of the great things about WAMM is that it puts patients in charge of their health care," Valerie said. "I just hope that when the drug companies and federal government find a way to make money off of medical marijuana, we'll still be here."

On a Sunday afternoon in October the Corrals and about a dozen other WAMM members began the happy task of harvesting the marijuana plants that will supply the club for 2001. The air on the property, which is perched on a secluded cliff overlooking the Pacific, was redolent with the pungent-sweet scent of marijuana. Mike Corral and George Hanamoto, a 66-year-old glaucoma patient, cut down marijuana plants in the fenced-in garden. The other WAMM members sat in a circle under a tarp, trimming the plants to make it easier to harvest the buds during drying.

Five of the members present had AIDS. Two had breast cancer. One had colon cancer. A young man who brought his brother along was suffering from lupus. Suzanne Peterson, a pretty 42-year-old and mother of three teenage sons, who had been disabled by a severe case of postpolio syndrome, trimmed plants from a wheelchair. Half a dozen dogs, two of them belonging to the Corrals, wandered around the group. Members drank beer and soda and munched potato chips, chatting about nothing in particular. It felt like a garden party, which in a way it was.

"I love WAMM and this garden," said Hanamoto during a break from his cutting. Once a straight-and-narrow television repairman, he now wears his hair in a long ponytail. A white undershirt revealed a surprisingly taut physique. "WAMM changed me," he said. "I feel like I'm doing something in my life." He is now the garden coordinator, a kind of deputy to Mike Corral, and spends Sundays in the garden with his wife, Jean. "We speak about my using marijuana openly a lot, to everyone we know," he said. "I try to put it to people that people who smoke marijuana are not brain-dead." Marijuana, he said, has relieved the pressure in his eyes from glaucoma. "About two years after I started using it, a doctor said the glaucoma was gone," he said.

Mike, who was nearly shrouded by plants, said he was well aware of the government's dismissal of the benefits of marijuana for glaucoma and other ailments. But countering the official doubt comes easily after his 25 years of research, experimentation, and growing, he said. "There are 462 molecules in marijuana," he said with a wry smile, "so there's a long way to go before this is fully investigated."

For several years his wife has assiduously been documenting the type and amount of marijuana WAMM members use to test the effectiveness not only of the strain of the plant used but also of the method of ingestion. Members take the herb in muffins -- though many complain that this way makes the drug too strong -- as well as in Mother's Milk, in cigarettes, or in a tincture added to food or drink. Mike uses the responses from members to experiment with different marijuana plant varieties.

"We're working with pure indica strains, pure sativa strains, and hybrids," he said. "We're growing more indica this year than the sativa because the membership prefers it for pain." He looked around the garden, where the plants bloomed fat and tall. "I can tell this is going to be a vintage year for purple indica," he said, gazing like a proud papa at a bush about six feet high.

Valerie Corral, in overalls and sneakers, tiptoed into the garden to take a look. She is prone to smiling, which she did automatically when she saw Mike among the flourishing plants. She squeezed his hand and kissed him. "This garden," she said, "is beautiful."

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