Fighting to heal
On a crisp, sparkling San Francisco afternoon, Jane Weirick is in a secret room in a guarded building, waiting to meet her connection.
Escorted by security personnel, a furtive 24-year-old man enters the room carrying a satchel.
"I've got some strong weed," he tells Weirick.
As co-director of the San Francisco Patient's Resource Center, otherwise known as St Martin's Dispensary, Weirick has heard it all before. Ever since she and co-founder Wayne Justmann opened their medical pot club in August 1999, she's spent many hours evaluating and purchasing marijuana, hashish, cannabis oil, and edible marijuana goodies for the hundreds of patients who visit her club each week.
St Martin's and other medical marijuana dispensaries operate in a legal vacuum. California's 1996 medical marijuana law legalized marijuana for patients and caregivers, but courts have sent mixed messages about whether med-pot clubs can legally operate.
As the aspiring bud salesman opens his satchel to retrieve two pounds of small, well-manicured buds, Weirick tells me she's kept a sample of every type of marijuana she's purchased since the club opened.
"We have about 250 samples, marked with the variety and when we got it," she says. "If patients benefit from a particular type, we can match it and tell them what it was. My personal favorite was called Train Wreck."
Weirick paused to examine the grower's pot, using a magnifying glass. She held some bud to her nose, then frowned.
"Harvested too soon," she says. "There's no aroma, no resin glands. I couldn't pay you more than $900 a pound."
The grower grimaces as he tells Weirick his pot is "really strong" and offers to smoke some with her.
"I'm sorry, it isn't good enough," she says. "Our patients need the strongest medicine possible."
Disconsolate, the man seals up his pounds, places them in his satchel, and heads for the door.
"I'll have to sell it on the street," he says. "I really need the money. Somebody'll buy it."
"Growers aren't making charitable donations," Weirick laments, after the man is gone. "They're selling for the highest price they can get. People think we're making a lot of money, but this is a labor of love, not profit. We can barely afford to pay suppliers, and the patients can hardly afford to pay us, even though we add the smallest possible mark-up, just enough to pay our bills. We're leasing 2200 square feet of space, and it costs $6000 a month. There are several clubs in the city. We're all competing for medicine, but I won't buy schwag."
Across the Bay in Oakland, Jeff Jones sits in his upstairs office above the hemp and mediweed accessories store at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative (OCBC), which is becoming the most famous medical marijuana club in the country, even though it is no longer allowed to distribute medical pot.
Referring to the Woody Harrelson film about government efforts to censor pornographer and civil rights activist Larry Flynt, Jones laughs when I suggest that Harrelson may one-day star in The People versus Jeff Jones.
Sometime before Summer 2001, Jones and the OCBC's attorneys will be in the hallowed US Supreme Court chambers, arguing that medical necessity justifies the OCBC's desire to distribute medical marijuana to patients who qualify for it under Proposition 215.
It is perhaps the most important marijuana case to reach America's highest court in many years, and it arises out of a government-initiated lawsuit filed against Jones, the OCBC and several other California medical marijuana cooperatives two years ago. The lawsuit has bounced back and forth between US District Court Judge Charles Breyer, the Ninth Circuit Court, and the US Supreme Court, which last summer put an emergency hold on Breyer's ruling that would have allowed OCBC to distribute mediweed to patients who met "medical necessity" criteria. Breyer said patients would suffer imminent harm if they couldn't get medical pot; the Supreme Court said it didn't care, accepting Clinton administration arguments that the drug war could not be sustained if medical marijuana was legally available.
In the sole dissent to the Court's decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said the government "failed to demonstrate that the denial of necessary medicine to seriously ill and dying patients will advance the public interest, or that the failure to enjoin the distribution of such medicine will impair the orderly enforcement of federal criminal statutes."
OCBC attorney Rob Raich said he was disappointed that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case so soon.
"We have a hearing scheduled at the Ninth Circuit on January 10. I'd hoped they'd have waited until the Ninth Circuit ruled, but it's a political situation. Clinton has tried to show he's tough on drugs. In the presidential campaign, we had one former recreational drug using candidate, Bush, accusing the other former recreational drug using candidate, Gore, of not being tough on drugs. So they're tough on drugs, even if that means patients die, go blind, or suffer debilitating diseases. Patients pay the price so America can be tough on drugs."
Raich's supreme legal team includes several top attorneys, including Gerald Uelmen, one of the defense lawyers in the infamous OJ Simpson case.
"Our arguments are powerful and compelling," Raich says. "Medical marijuana laws haven't prevented the government from enforcing drug laws. California has imprisoned more people for drugs in the years since 215 became law than we ever have before. We'll show that medical necessity has been a recognized common law defense for centuries, and we'll also insist that Californians have the right to legalize medical marijuana."
Raich says the case focuses narrowly on OCBC and Jeff Jones.
"If we lose, it will not overturn any state's medical marijuana laws," Raich said. "The original suit named other medical clubs, but some of those clubs are operating, and the feds know they are operating but thank God haven't brought action against them. The real sin in the government's mind is not just distributing medicine, but telling the media you are distributing medicine. Jeff and the OCBC have been very courageous in community outreach and education; this is what made them targets."
Weirick and Justmann aren't targets yet. In liberal-minded San Francisco, they may never be. The two activists, who worked for Dennis Peron's pioneering med-pot "Compassion Club" until it was closed in 1998, were among the first patients to receive the official "cannabis ID card" issued by San Francisco's city and county Department of Public Health.
"We were part of the team of citizens and politicians who helped create the card program," explains Justmann. "The card is totally confidential because it only has a serial number and your picture on it. The Health Department won't do any more than verify that the number is valid and when the card expires; they don't even keep any of the paperwork patients bring in. We also helped them set up a card system for primary caregivers."
Justmann says he works hard to integrate St Martin's Dispensary and its customers into the city's political life. The Dispensary hosts political debates, provides free food and beverages to indigent patients, and works closely with the Mayor's office and San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who has been attacked by drug warriors for supporting Prop 215 and refusing to prosecute drug offenders.
Weirick says she takes nothing for granted.
"If a Bush administration comes in, we're not sure what the feds would do to us," she warns.
Weirick hopes her pot habit may protect St Martin's Dispensary. To show me what she means, Weirick goes into a side room, and when she comes out, she has become "Sister Mary Jane," dressed in a nun's habit.
"I am now a fully-ordained nun," Weirick says, joking about vows of chastity. "The local bishop believes that healing the sick is God's work. We have a shrine here, dedicated to the healing herb. If somebody comes to arrest us, we hope that the fact that this is a church mercy mission will protect us."
St Martin's may be protected against government action, but the Lord's blessing hasn't been enough to protect the dispensary from private thieves.
"Until marijuana is legalized completely and black market prices recede from $3600 a pound wholesale, medical providers will have to worry about robberies," Justmann says. "We had an armed robbery just before Thanksgiving a year ago. We've had a couple of break-ins and have lost about $10,000 total in money and medicine. One of them was an inside job. It's criminals stealing from patients. It's despicable."
Back to the land
Two hours northeast of San Francisco, on a farm in the middle of nowhere, the father of California's medical pot movement lives tanned and buff in semi-retirement. Dennis Peron used to be at the epicenter of the state's med-pot wars, but years of rip-offs, being shot by police, and back-stabbed by marijuana activists caused him to withdraw from the fray.
David Nick, one of Peron's attorneys, says drug charges filed against Peron are in limbo.
"The state attorney general's office doesn't want to dismiss the case just yet," Nick says. "They offered Dennis a walk-away charge where he would plead guilty to 'conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.' It carries no jail time and all he has to do is remain arrest-free of non-marijuana charges for a year and then they reduce it to a misdemeanor. But Dennis doesn't believe he's committed any crimes, so he's refused to plead guilty, and the attorney general doesn't want to put Dennis on trial or give him a flat out dismissal. So Dennis goes to court every four or five months. We suspect that when the Lungren prosecutor who brought the case retires next year, all charges will be completely dismissed."
In the interim, Peron is cultivating a green thumb: he and a group of patients harvested hundreds of pounds of outdoor bud last summer and the summer before that.
"We grew it right out in the open, and the plants were humongous," says Steve Scott, who received the HIV virus from a blood transfusion after a car accident several years ago. He believes that marijuana directly reduces the amount of virus in his body.
"Before I grew on Dennis's farm, I was paying street prices and I couldn't afford it. My health was going up and down, depending on whether I could get cannabis," he explains. "Then my partner Tom and I grew enough to last us for more than year. We stayed up all night for weeks guarding the crop from locals who tried to slip through the fence and rip us off. The DEA crashed a helicopter while doing surveillance. Some of the plants were four feet in diameter, and others were more than ten feet tall. It was so beautiful. One of the strongest varieties is named Peron!"
While Steve, Tom, Dennis and other patients grow medicine in relative safety, medical marijuana advocates in other California locales are less lucky.
In Calaveras County, located in Central California's Sierra foothills, Rick and Sue Garner formed a spiritual-medical enterprise affiliated with the Northern Lights Church, a Unitarian religion that views cannabis as a sacrament.
The Garners are medical users who spent a year working with government and community representatives to enact ordinances based on Prop 215. The couple helped craft an ordinance allowing 30 plants and four pounds of marijuana, which they felt was inadequate.
"We told the sheriff, the district attorney, the county counsel, and the state attorney general that we are public pot growers, complying with 11362.5 [the criminal code section number for Prop 215]," explained Sue Garner. "We were growing 250 plants in our front yard. We had a letter from the county counsel saying we're a legal dispensary. After we started getting weird vibes from police, we wrote the DA a letter saying we were afraid we were going to get raided."
The Garner's fears were justified. In early August, police raided the couple's home, seizing plants, confidential patient records, and computers.
"Our attorneys were there during the raid, begging the cops not to take all the plants and leave us a little medicine," Rick Garner said. "The same cop who sat next to me on the ordinance committee was the one who put a machine gun to my son's head. One cop said, 'I guess you and I have a different definition of what medicine is.' The cops almost blew up our house by cutting a propane line for our CO2 generator without turning off the tank. We had to evacuate and call the fire department."
The Garners were not arrested the day of the raid. Rick Garner replanted a new crop of plants the next day, and has since harvested them. In November, however, police came back with an unusual search warrant.
"They had an order to cut some of my son's hair," Garner said. "It was astounding. They tested it, and now they've charged me with felony cultivation and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. They also busted my sister, who has a medical recommendation, for her 20 plants. They want to destroy us personally and politically."
Sacramento activist Ryan Landers has also experienced the politics of personal destruction. Landers is afflicted with the HIV virus; he decided six years ago to go public with his condition and how medical marijuana keeps him alive. He testifies at state government hearings, and has appeared on television and in newspaper articles, sometimes with marijuana plants. He got arrested for smoking his medicine in Sacramento's "K Street Mall," which prompted city and county politicians to pass ordinances specifically banning public medical pot inhalation.
Landers used to live in downtown Sacramento near the offices of then-Attorney General Dan Lungren.
"He could look out his office and right into my well-lit grow room," Landers says with a smile.
Pot publicity has a downside. Pot-hungry thugs have robbed his home twice.
"I wanted to run a medical marijuana club, but I didn't feel safe. I was robbed again on November 4, 1999," he recalls. "I reported to my insurance company that I lost two pounds of marijuana. Within two weeks, they had cut me a check for the loss at $5000 per pound."
Last June, DARE-brainwashed neighbors reported Landers for having inch-tall plants outdoors. Police tried to bully their way into his home, and later gave his narc neighbors confidential information about him.
"They told my neighbors I was under investigation by the DEA and the FBI because I had visited an indoor grow store called Greenfire. They also told them I had HIV. I investigated the federal investigation, and found out that I was just one of many who was being targeted for visiting the grow shop. And when my neighbors found out I had AIDS, they vandalized my property and circulated a petition saying they didn't want us in their neighborhood," Landers reported. "The guy next door was angry because I wouldn't sell him pot. He tried to get my landlord to kick me out. I was a good neighbor, and a lot of people liked me and the people who live with me, but homophobia and drug war hysteria is still very strong. It's kind of depressing."
Depression does not mean defeat for California's medical marijuana users and providers, many of whom feel that marijuana advocacy is a spiritual calling.
Steve Scott lives on the edge of death. He says growing marijuana gives him something to think about instead of his disease. Wayne Justmann and Ryan Landers also have AIDS; they swallow handfuls of semi-toxic prescription medications every day just to stay alive. The Garners had to put a second mortgage on their home to pay legal fees. Peron took a police bullet in the leg, and has been forced into virtual exile.
"Yeah, my life is on the line," Justmann replied when I asked if he was worried about his health, and about the stress of working seven days a week running a med-pot dispensary. "But I can't think of a better way to go out of this world than smoking a joint and laughing with a fellow patient, having Mayor Willie Brown tell me that our dispensary has been praised by its neighbors for helping to improve this neighborhood, and providing God's green medicine to people who need it, no matter what!"