Weed Wars

Dispatches from the California Marijuana Front

August 12, 2010
Medical marijuana pioneer protests cash cow pot stores

valariewamm[1].JPGOne of protagonists of the modern marijuana movement in California charges that the burgeoning dispensary trade has become a cash cow aloof from the people it is meant to serve.

Valerie Corral filed the state's first known "medical necessity" defense when she challenged her arrest for cultivating five marijuana plants, arguing she had a right to use cannabis to treat seizures resulting from a car accident.

After prosecutors threw out the charges in 1993, Corral co-founded the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, a Santa Cruz pot-growing collective renowned for serving the terminally ill. She later worked to pass the California's Proposition 215 Compassionate Use Act legalizing medical use.

But these days, she is fed up with the growth of California's contemporary marijuana "collectives" - namely pot-distributing dispensaries with thousands of registered members and millions of dollars in annual marijuana transactions.

"Something has happened to our movement, something that is dark and denigrates the issue," Corral said recently at the HempCon medical marijuana convention in San Jose. "It (the movement) did not happen so people can get rich."

Dispensaries under California law must operate as non-profits. But Corral decried an evolution of a massive medical marijuana industry she says is characterized by generous salaries and an entrepreneurial spirit that overshadows the core purpose of helping and comforting people in need.

WAMM members, including AIDS and cancer patients, directly cultivate and share medical marijuana rather than ringing up cash register transactions at a pot shop. Members hold Tuesday night meetings to distribute the marijuana based on medical needs and ability to pay.

After Prop 215's passage in 1996, Corral hoped the WAMM model - with small groups of growers and medical users working together -- would become the standard.

"I thought the WAMM consciousness would take off," she said. "It didn't. The dispensaries did."

Yet WAMM remains a cultural icon in the marijuana movement. In 2002, federal agents stirred a political backlash by raiding the marijuana garden, confiscating the crop and arresting Corral and her husband, WAMM co-founder Mike Corral.

The city and county of Santa Cruz joined in lawsuits against the federal government. In 2004, A U.S. District Judge, Jeremy Fogel, issued an injunction barring future raids of the WAMM site. Last year, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder announced he won't target medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

Since the WAMM was founded in 1993, 223 members of the collective have died. Seventeen are buried near its marijuana garden. Others are commemorated on painted stones.

"It's difficult to watch your friends die," Corral said. "It's difficult to watch people suffer. It can be very unnerving and put us face to face with our own mortality."

California voters are to decide in November whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults over 21. Corral says she has concerns over the measure and isn't endorsing it - but likes the potential market impact of driving the price of marijuana far below what is currently being charged in most dispensaries.

Regardless of the outcome, she said WAMM will continue operating as a purely medical collective.

"I'm in this for the liberty. I'm in it for the social justice," Corral said. "I'm in it not only for the healing but for the profundity of the healing."

Pictured: Corral speaks at HempCon event in San Jose. Peter Hecht/phecht@sacbee.com.

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About Weed Wars

Peter Hecht

From its pot fields to politics, California is the epicenter for America's marijuana discussion. This blog covers news, trends and people of the California marijuana story.

Contact reporter Peter Hecht at phecht@sacbee.com

» See the sacbee.com marijuana topics page

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