Santa Cruz medical marijuana collective stays true to its roots

SANTA CRUZ – By his count, Don Ivey, 56, should have been dead six times by now.

The artisan and former competitive in-line skater survived both a stabbing and a scuba diving accident as a young man. Fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with AIDS and hepatitis C. Five years ago, he crashed a motorcycle, landing facedown, partially paralyzed, in an ocean bay.

Recently, just 30 days removed from his second emergency room visit for internal bleeding and vomiting blood, Ivey walked up a terraced marijuana garden that is a medicinal and spiritual refuge for the sick, injured and dying.

Rising above rows of English lavender and shielded by a crescent-shaped ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the pot garden for the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana is an icon in the history of the California marijuana movement.

The garden survives despite a 2002 raid – and seizure of the crop – by heavily armed federal agents. It thrives amid an aura of death, as members reap the harvest while grieving for those who succumb to terminal illnesses.

“Love grows here,” Ivey said, plucking unwanted yellowish leaves from the pot plants and stuffing them into his paralyzed hand, permanently balled into a fist. “This is not a pot club. This is a group of people who are doing it for each other, for real compassion.”

Organized as a cannabis-growing commune, WAMM planted its garden three years before California voters approved Proposition 215, the 1996 law that legalized marijuana for medical use. Its members, including cancer, AIDS and other seriously ill patients, sow, harvest and share the crop.

Founders Mike Corral, 60, and his wife, Valerie, 58, started growing marijuana to relieve seizures Valerie began to suffer after a car accident. They thought their simple garden – and its authentic marijuana-growing collective – would become the model for medical cultivation and distribution.

Instead, medical marijuana in California has boomed with pseudo-retail “collectives” peddling designer cannabis strains and handling millions of dollars in transactions. A $1 billion dispensary trade serves a vast range of marijuana users – and ailments generally far less serious than the life-altering challenges at WAMM.

“I think we were naive to think that this wouldn’t happen. This is America. Capitalism reigns supreme,” Mike Corral said. “We’re a socialist organization trying to exist in a capitalist world.”

Death a constant presence

California voters are poised to vote on a November initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use. But WAMM members say they will continue to operate as always, no matter the outcome.

The group’s 225 members hold meetings to distribute their marijuana based on medical need and ability to pay. In a “design for dying” program, they organize bedside vigils and assistance for those in their final days of life.

Since its inception, 223 members have died from illnesses or medical conditions whose symptoms they had alleviated with marijuana.

High above the garden, a surfboard, urns, quartz rocks and Buddhist figures mark buried ashes of 17 members. Others are commemorated on painted rocks nearby – or in hundreds of photographs that fill walls of the collective’s offices in downtown Santa Cruz.

“Death is a daily part of life in WAMM,” said Sheri Paris, a former UC Santa Cruz creative writing professor and WAMM member now disabled with a brain condition.

“People who talk about this as a pretext to get high should look at the pictures on the wall,” she said, puffing on a marijuana cigarette in the WAMM office, a regimen she says quells her seizures. “The government would have you think that people are coming here for hangnails. If they’re faking it, they’re faking it to the point of dying.”

WAMM’s medical adviser, Santa Cruz physician Dr. Arnold Leff, is a former deputy director of the White House office of drug abuse under President Richard Nixon. He began treating HIV and AIDS patients in 1985, and soon recommended marijuana to ease their anxiety, nausea and pain from nerve damage.

He says marijuana isn’t an appropriate remedy for everyone. But he said: “You take terminally ill people and you put them in this environment and the bottom line is they feel better and live longer.”

Up in the garden, Don Ivey penned his name on a nursery tag for a flowering marijuana plant he put in the ground months ago with a shovel he can cradle with but one arm.

“It has given my life purpose,” he said. “If you don’t have purpose, you start listening to that communication between your ears that it is all gloom and doom and you’re going to die. Now I look forward to every day I’m alive. And I’ve always wanted to be a pot grower.”

DEA raid leads to standoff

Law enforcement authorities weren’t eager to accept WAMM’s marijuana garden.

Shortly before the Corrals established the collective, Santa Cruz County deputies arrested the couple for illegal cultivation over five plants they were growing for Valerie’s seizures. She filed California’s first known “medical necessity” defense for marijuana. The district attorney ultimately refused to prosecute.

But on Sept. 5, 2002, a decade after 77 percent of voters in liberal Santa Cruz County approved a local medical marijuana initiative and nearly six years after Californians approved Proposition 215, dozens of DEA agents swooped in on the WAMM site.

In the widely publicized incident, agents rousted sleeping medical marijuana patients from houses and detained and handcuffed Mike and Valerie Corral at gunpoint. With chain saws, they cut down 167 harvest-ready plants and packed up the crop.

Korean War veteran and former Santa Cruz clothing manufacturer Harold “Hal” Margolin, then 70, went to the scene. The heart patient, who used the marijuana for pain after back surgery left him nearly crippled, remembers weeping.

“They had come with a heavy hand to show us that we were not going to be able to do this. And they were teaching us a lesson,” he said.

DEA agents, enforcing federal laws against marijuana cultivation, ordered Margolin and other WAMM members to retreat. They did – but then chained and padlocked a gate at the entrance to the property, trapping the authorities inside.

A tense standoff played out before a swarm of media. WAMM followers refused to allow the government convoy and U-Hauls of seized pot to leave until receiving word on the fate of Mike and Valerie Corral. From a San Jose federal detention facility, Valerie Corral told the WAMM members to let the agents leave.

Federal prosecutors filed no charges. But the raid stirred a political fury and newfound sympathy for the medical marijuana movement.

“I thought the DEA was out of its mind,” said former state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who a year later authored state legislation implementing guidelines to allow marijuana cultivation and distribution under Proposition 215. “We had wars going on and violent crime. And they were raiding people in pain.”

The city and county of Santa Cruz joined a WAMM lawsuit to protect its right to cultivate marijuana. In 2004, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel issued an injunction barring federal incursions on the WAMM site.

Late last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the U.S. Justice Department would no longer target legal medical marijuana operations in states permitting medicinal use. This January, WAMM settled its lawsuit against the government with an agreement to refile the case if it is targeted again.

Diverse range of patients

In the eight years since the raid, Margolin, now 78, had a heart attack – his second – and was diagnosed with leukemia. His injured back gradually moved him from “a cane to a walker to a wheelchair.”

He took frequent, daily puffs of marijuana, calculating just enough, he said, to reduce his pain without feeling overly impaired. As his health deteriorated, he began cultivating pot at home to supply other collective members.

“The first year, they said, ‘Don’t bother.’ It wasn’t any good,” he said. “The second year, the pot was pretty damn good. I learned how to do it. I talked to the plants – every day.”

At one recent WAMM members meeting, patients including a blind woman with a guide dog and several people in wheelchairs showed up to get their medicine – dried marijuana packed in plastic bags and placed in manila envelopes.

Seth Prettol, 30, a Modesto resident and San Jose State University engineering student paralyzed in a fall from a rope swing near Yosemite, made it to the meeting after a long absence. He used to work in the garden, grinding marijuana leaves in his wheelchair for use in skin creams said to have anti-inflammatory properties and liquid elixirs touted as an alternative to smoking.

He was cheered as he rolled into the room. But he was tense with muscle spasms. Danny Rodriques, 61, an AIDS patient and former San Francisco barkeep, massaged Prettol’s shoulders.

The members discussed a “WAMMfest” community festival to raise money for the group, which operates on an annual budget of $165,000.

Mike Corral gave the weekly garden report. “The garden is beautiful,” he said.

WAMM now ‘my family’

The next Thursday morning, former auto detailer Jose Valencia, 46, a lymphoma patient, and ex-Amador County paramedic Pete Herzog, 50, who has Lyme disease, rose early to cut weeds and brush from the mountain grave sites of WAMM members.

Below, amid wafting marijuana smoke, others readied for shifts in the garden in a work room brimming with freshly painted memorial stones.

One rock was for Maria Lucinda “Lucy” Garcia, a former Santa Cruz hairdresser and make-up artist who came to WAMM dying from ovarian cancer. She became a fixture in the garden but was uncomfortable about the pot she smoked to alleviate her nausea.

“She never smoked in front of her daughter,” Valerie Corral said. “She was very clear in delineating the lines.”

When Garcia died, WAMM members dressed her in a long red gown. Valerie Corral did her hair and nails. At Garcia’s request, Corral adopted her daughter, Shana Conti, now 19.

Now, Hal Margolin says his moment is near. His leukemia has advanced to a terminal stage.

He is in an acute care unit at Santa Cruz’s Dominican Hospital for a broken hip. He’s being visited by his wife and children and deluged with cards from WAMM members preparing to help him upon his release from the hospital.

“My family is called WAMM,” Margolin said. “I don’t know if it will go down in history or not. But if it does, the story will be that we did it the right way.”