A family of deer exploded out of the forest. I must have been 6, squatting in the dirt driveway with my model horses as the animals dodged around me, eyes bulging. Then a helicopter emerged from behind the trees, its body like a giant insect, loud as a machine gun. It hovered low overhead, sending debris whirling into my face. My mom rushed out of the house and pulled me close to her body. The chopper moved on toward the next ranch.
The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was a creature of the Reagan Administration. Launched in 1983, CAMP employed disused military equipment — U-2 spy planes, infrared cameras, flash-bang grenades, and battering rams — to hunt marijuana growers in California. Over the years, this equipment would increasingly be mobilized against urban communities of color throughout the United States. Reagan fired some of the first experimental salvos in his war on drugs against rural pot growers in his home state.
Every month, my mom loaded our Datsun hatchback with home-baked cannabis brownies and drove three hours to San Francisco. My dad was often out of work and we never had much money; this was how we survived. The sale of any amount of marijuana was a felony in those days. But like many hippies, my parents saw the plant as wholesome — a gift from Mother Earth.
Our town was part of the tri-county area nicknamed the “Emerald Triangle” for the potent sinsemilla grown in the hills. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid at my Waldorf school whose parents had to check her sweater for pot leaves before school. I learned to lie to protect my family before I could spell my own name.
My parents eventually divorced, and Mom and I moved back to San Francisco, where she distributed her edibles to people with AIDS at the dawn of the medical marijuana movement. The specifics changed over time, but one fact remained constant: telling the truth could send my mom to prison.
Our secret was a kind of enchantment, a magic spell. I grew up in a vibrant world that could only exist if it remained invisible. This defined my childhood. Some family secrets must be terrible to carry — fraught with deceit and shame. My burden was made lighter by openness at home. No topic was taboo between my mom and me. Even as our secret distanced me from outsiders, it made us closer, creating an intimate, trusting mother-daughter bond that persists to this day.
My mom called her oversized bed “the barge.” After my parents divorced when I was 9, it became the heart of our home. I can still see her sprawled out sideways, blue-green-amber eyes gleaming with the punchline of a funny story. The barge was where we ate Chinese takeout and watched “ALF,” where I suffered through math homework, where we argued and made up. Whenever the waters of prepuberty got choppy, I headed for the barge. Mom and I became more like sisters than mother and daughter — a dynamic that suited us.
At school, I struggled to make friends. I got bullied, eventually volunteering in the administrative office during recess to avoid other kids. Looking back, I wonder how much of my social awkwardness grew from the secrecy. There was so much I couldn’t share.
If my mom brought the poison, she also provided the antidote. She strove to instill confidence. There were dance lessons, horseback lessons, and crafts. When other kids put me down, she built me up with salon dates, road trips, sunny afternoons on paddle boats in Golden Gate Park, and foggy afternoons at the penny arcade. Mom came into a small inheritance when I was 10, and we decided together how to spend it: a six-week trip to Mexico, where I did my schoolwork on the beach. We crashed resort pools in Ixtapa and sunbathed side-by-side, sipping virgin piña coladas with our pinkies in the air.
Cops terrified me. If I encountered a policeman on the street, I held my breath like people do when passing a graveyard. One day in 1987, the entire fourth grade was ushered into the cafeteria where a uniformed cop was waiting. My heart pinballed in my ribcage. The policeman explained that we’d be spending a lot of time together.
We were going to learn how to “Just Say No” to drugs.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education — better known by its slogan, “D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs!” — was the crowning jewel of Nancy Reagan’s FLOTUS project. Throughout that semester, I fidgeted through lectures on how to recognize and report dealers. I remember noticing that the drug dealers the policeman described didn’t sound like my mom ― a pretty white woman.
Looking back, I wonder how much coded racism was hidden in those lessons. Congress had recently passed the first mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug crimes, laws that would be unjustly wielded against people of color. This was the dawn of mass incarceration. At 9, I was ignorant of these factors but keenly aware of the giant garbage bags of illicit cannabis straining the closet door of our spare bedroom. I had begun helping my mom bake after school and on weekends. Sometimes I tagged along on deliveries.
I faked my way through D.A.R.E., acing quizzes to win bookmarks and notebooks. But I never saw the lecturing policeman as anything other than my sworn enemy. I still remembered the helicopters thundering over our house in the woods.
My mom relied on hippie magic — particularly an ancient Chinese oracle called the I Ching — to guide her through risky situations. She’d roll special brass coins in her palm and cast them onto her comforter. The results corresponded with passages in a leather-bound book. She followed the advice assiduously. The I Ching gave her confidence — and that confidence trickled down to me.
It was always like that with me: If my mom was cool, I was cool. And the cops never did knock on our door.
My mom’s role had changed by the late 80s. Cannabis was as illegal as ever — our secret just as dangerous — but dealing mattered in a different way. HIV/AIDS was devastating our communit. Lifesaving protease inhibitors wouldn’t hit the market until 1996. Diagnosis was considered a death sentence. With few treatment options, marijuana emerged as helpful with common symptoms — notably nausea, appetite loss, pain and depression. Dealers became healers.
My mom had a knack for putting people at ease. Longtime customers would climb aboard the barge and stay for hours, reminiscing, talking through difficulties, mourning.
It was during those days that I learned to listen and speak with my heart. Other kids intimidated me, but my mom and her friends made me feel welcome. I remember how the barge trembled with laughter and how sturdy it felt when you were down and needed reassurance. Equal parts therapist’s couch, ladies lounge and executive boardroom, it was a place for solace and intimacy.
Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t suffer more anxiety over my mom’s illegal work. I was terrified of AIDS but didn’t lose sleep over the real possibility of a bust. It’s only now, decades later, that I worry for the safety of the child I used to be.
Our lives could have taken a tragic turn at any time.
What if my mom’s oracles had failed and the cops had come for us?
Or what if I had failed? What if I’d let our secret slip out in the wrong company?
A friend recently compared my mom sharing her secret with me to giving a child a gas can and matches and telling them not to burn the house down. Perhaps she’s right. But there was another factor at play: My mom created a space that I would never want to see burn. She trusted me with her freedom. I didn’t let her down.
My mom stopped dealing in 1998, two years after the first medical marijuana legislation passed in California. Once HIV/AIDS patients could access cannabis legally, she felt she could move on. She’s a law-abiding citizen now — an artist and popular art teacher. There are no secrets left to hide. Yet the bond forged during my outlaw childhood remains strong. Though we live in different parts of California, we talk on the phone every day. During visits, we’ll climb onto a big bed and float together, letting the current we share carry us softly through the hours.
Alia Volz is the author of “Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Salon, Guernica, The Threepenny Reivew, and many other publications. Her unusual family story has also been featured on Snap Judgment, Criminal and NPR’s Fresh Air.