Marijuana in Pot Phobic Marin County, California

Marijuana in Pot Phobic Marin County, California
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Marijuana in Pot Phobic Marin County, California

By Jonah Raskin

Marin, one of the richest counties in California, is named after a Native American who was enslaved by the Spanish in the early 1800s, and who escaped repeatedly and refused to be conquered. Just across the Golden Gate and North of San Francisco, where marijuana is as much a part of the culture as beer and wine, and just South of Mendocino and Humboldt, two of the biggest marijuana growing counties in the state, Marin has tried for decades to suppress the nascent marijuana industry. But the industry keeps bouncing back, as do marijuana consumers who insist on getting high and taking their medicine religiously.

Ironically, most of the marijuana that makes its way from Mendocino and Humboldt to San Francisco—and also to Berkeley and Oakland—has to travel through Marin on the 101, the only artery through the county, and then cross the Golden Gate Bridge or the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. For the most part, that marijuana, which is transported by the ton in trucks, vans and cars, is invisible and undetected, which is exactly how many Marinites would like all marijuana to be. Perhaps if it can’t be seen, citizens tell themselves, it isn’t really there and can’t be a political issue. One might call that a state of denial.

For decades the county has waged a long, protracted war against marijuana cultivation, though it has not eliminated it entirely. Indeed, it’s grown in backyards, forests and fields. Marin has also aimed to stifle the institution, born of Proposition 215, that’s come to be known as the medical marijuana dispensary, where patients with a recommendation from a doctor, can buy the herb and use it for a variety of ailments and conditions. San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland all have large dispensaries with a variety of marijuana products. Marinites can and do travel to those cities, make purchases and drive home, though they complain that that’s inconvenient.

The war on marijuana, like the bigger, deadlier War on Drugs, which has been waged by every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt, has always been a war against human beings, often African Americans and Latinos. Still, no ethnic group, class, sex or gender as been immune from arrest, prosecution and persecution.

In Marin, one of the principle targets of the war on marijuana has been Lynnette Shaw, who is 62 years old and who has been called “the Queen of Green” and “the Godmother of Medical Marijuana.” A product of the great American counterculture, and a hardy survivor who refuses to give up her fight and bow down to the authorities, Shaw made a name for herself as a Hollywood dealer in the 1980s when she supplied stars like John Belushi with recreational marijuana.

Shaw recently reopened her notorious dispensary, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, which had been closed down by the federal government since 2011.

The federal government never convicted her, but it treated her as a common criminal and tried to ban her from the medical marijuana industry itself and thus deprive her of her livelihood. The Internal Revenue Service insisted that she owed more than $10 million in back taxes. She was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Located in the quaint Marin town of Fairfax, the Marin Alliance is the one and only dispensary in the entire county, population 253,000 and a godsend to many who depend on marijuana for their well-being and sanity.

“I’m the first P.O.W. to be released in the War on Drugs,” Shaw announced at a press conference that she held at her dispensary the day she reopened. In the spirit of generosity, she thanked her two dogged lawyers, Greg Anton and Larry Bragman, for keeping her out of jail. She also acknowledged the members of the community who showed up in droves to welcome her back to her old haunts at 6 School Street, just a stone’s throw from a field where Little Leaguers play baseball all summer.

Foes of marijuana in Marin have argued that a dispensary near a school or playground would likely tempt and corrupt youth, though no one pointed out that Shaw’s enterprise was dangerously close to the Little League ballpark. The Queen of Green clearly wasn’t troubled by the proximity of her dispensary to the boys of summer with their bats and balls, though Dr. Jennifer Golick, one of Marin’s most prominent opponents of marijuana, travels around the county and tells students, teachers, parents and children that marijuana is a dangerous drug. Recently, before a large crowd at Redwood High School in Larkspur, not far from Fairfax, Dr. Golick described marijuana as the “gateway drug” that created permanent damage to teenage brains. Dr. Golick insisted that smoking pot “was not a rite of passage but subsistence abuse.”

Shaw rejects that view as poppycock. For her marijuana is a benevolent herb. Indeed, she’s on a kind of religious crusade and a mission in which she has a personal stake.

“I don’t have children or a family of my own,” Shaw told the crowd of admirers. “This dispensary is my baby. I gave birth to it and raised it and now we’re moving into a new phrase together.”

On opening day balloons outside the dispensary read, “Welcome.” A sign said, “Must be 18 years old to enter.” Another read. “No smoking of anything” with a line drawn diagonally across an image of a cigarette and another of a marijuana leaf. No teenagers were present for the press conference and there wasn’t even a whiff of marijuana in he air, though new patients joined the Marin Alliance “collective” and bought marijuana with names like “Blue Dream” and “Zombie.” A man on crutches received a gram for free.

A videographer taped the event; two African American women from Oakland who work as cannabis consultants for Green Rush, fired questions at Shaw that she fielded easily.

“If I didn’t know what to say about marijuana after all these years that would be a very sad state of affairs, indeed,” she began, and then went on to talk about her own personal history. Shaw wouldn’t disclosure her age, though she said she was “middle aged, and passing for younger.”

She talked about the Summer of Love and its 50tth anniversary this year, as well as her experiences in San Francisco near the height of the War on Drugs and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which helped, perhaps more than any other historical event in the past quarter-century, to persuade Californians that marijuana can be good medicine. Indeed, it alleviated the pain of gay men who had the AIDS Wasting Syndrome and who suffered from nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy for cancer.

In the 1990s, Shaw teamed up with Dennis Peron, a San Francisco activist, and a Vietnam War veteran—and openly gay—who drafted much of the language for Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which paved the way in 1996 for medical marijuana. Peron also operated, with help from Shaw, the San Francisco Cannabis Club, a kind of outlaw marijuana retail store never granted a permit by the city, but that introduced to Shaw the concept of the dispensary.

“I took Peron’s idea to the next level,” she explained. “I opened the first licensed dispensary in the U.S.” Indeed, in 1997 it was an idea whose time had come, and, while patients flocked to the dispensary, the federal government did not appreciate it one bit, perhaps because at its peak Marin Alliance had 9,000 members. That’s more than the total population of the town of Fairfax. Marijuana use seemed to be spreading like the proverbial prairie fire.

In 2011, when Melinda Haag, a U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, closed down the dispensary she also drew up plans to foreclose on the landlord who leased his property to Shaw. In San Francisco, the government also threatened landlords who rented or leased their property to dispensaries. Rather than lose their buildings, they expelled tenants who sold marijuana, though a few stood their ground and went to court. Some are still in court.

A big breakthrough came in October 2015 when U. S. district judge, Charles Breyer concluded that the federal government violated the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment when it shut down Shaw’s business. Rohrabacher-Farr, which became law in December 2014, prohibits the federal government from closing dispensaries in states, like California, where medical marijuana is legal.

In his landmark decision, Judge Breyer described Marin Alliance as a “model business.” Cannabis industry analysts hailed his ruling as a major victory for dispensaries across the U.S., though their enthusiasm might be premature. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who would like nothing better than to escalate the war on marijuana, wants Congress to repeal Rohrabacher-Farr. Still, there was more cheering earlier this year when government lawyers decided to give up, for the time being, the fight against Shaw and Marin Alliance.

“I want to thank Donald Trump,” she observed wryly. “After he moved into the White House he fired a bunch of lawyers who were working on my case. They cleared out their desks and left Washington, D.C.”

No one was happier about that turn of events than Shaw and the patients at Marin Alliance who are, like patients elsewhere across California, old, young, white, black, male, female, infirm and unhappy with traditional western medicine and pills like Oxycontin and Valium. They’re Gen-Xers, Millennials and Vietnam veterans and not surprisingly they talked openly and candidly about their use of marijuana.

Jim from the near-by town of San Anselmo bought four different stains at $10 a gram to help, he said, with his multiple sclerosis. Carmen, also from San Anselmo, said she used cannabis to manage the pain caused by a near-fatal car accident and to alleviate her depression and anxiety. A woman who called herself Joy said that cannabis helped with her husband’s dementia and her stress. Another patient, a former pilot in the U.S. Air Force, said that he once grew weed in the hills of Marin, but that he now lived where cultivation was impossible. Hippies introduced the plant to Marin in the 1960s; many still grow it, along with their children and grandchildren though commercial operations are modest by comparison with plantations in Mendocino and Humboldt.

“Pot helps me a lot,” the ex-Air Force pilot said. “I just don’t like the idea of kids using it.”

No one seems to like the idea of kids smoking marijuana, though some northern California doctors, like Jeff Hergenrather, argue that marijuana helps teenagers get through a difficult time in their lives.

Dan, yet another patient at Marin Alliance, explained that he had been arrested and jailed for smuggling marijuana several decades ago. He didn’t apologize for his illegal activities or show any regret, though he boasted about the foster children he had raised to be healthy adults.

“The reopening of this dispensary has been a team effort,” he said. He added, “I use marijuana to help me sleep at night.”

Near the end of her press conference, Shaw tackled what she called two “urban legends” about marijuana. First, that the presence of a dispensary brings down property values, and second that dispensaries attract undesirable elements.

“I don’t see any undesirables here,” she said. “In fact, we have removed the shady dealer in the alley who sold on the black market.” She added, “In northern California the price of pot has actually helped to drive up the price of land.” That’s true, though the price of grapes has also made land dear. Moreover, all across northern California, the wealthy as well as the poor and the middle class smoke marijuana

Shaw’s customers are ill and sick, but they’re not derelicts or criminals. They pay for their medicine and they look tidy and speak civilly.

In pot-smoking pockets of the county, marijuana patients cheered the reopening of Marin Alliance, though foes of dispensaries seem unwilling to bend. Pot adversary Amos Klausner has argued frequently at public hearings that dispensaries are largely incompatible with the kinds of family values that are important to Marinites. As a resident of San Geronimo Valley, which is rural and remote, he has been vocal in his opposition to shops that sell marijuana, though he has said that his public appearances are anxiety-producing and that he doesn’t enjoy them.

Klausner also confessed that he has a medical marijuana card and that he buys cannabis at Harborside, the giant Oakland dispensary, then transports it in his car and smokes it outside his home.

“I’m not a crazy straight-arrow,” he said. “I’ve been smoking pot for a long time.”

Klausner just doesn’t want dispensaries near schools, bus stops, housing for people on fixed incomes and places where kids congregate. No one has suggested that his political stance seems to contradict his own life style.

Jeff Hickey, who lives in west Marin, has used marijuana for a variety of medical conditions, but he doesn’t have a lot to say that’s positive about dispensaries.

“I did get some good advice once from a delivery service,” he said. (Marin has a number of companies, including Delta 11, that bring marijuana to private homes and offices.)

Hickey added, “For the most part, I can’t afford dispensary prices and in some ways, they might not be as needed now as they once were. In Marin, lots of people are growing their own.”

Perhaps his biggest complaint is with the NIMBYs who don’t want pot in their backyards and neighborhoods.

“Marin liberals talk a good talk,” he said. “But when it comes to marijuana they’re not liberals at all. This place is so phony.”

Indeed, Marin often seems to be hypocritical on the subject of marijuana. Marinites have voted for legalization when the issue is on the ballot, but they lobby against it in their own communities. Marin Alliance is the one symbol of the county’s minimal tolerance of marijuana. No one can rightly say that the pot prohibition is total or universal.

Shaw and her patients are far less critical of Marin now that the dispensary is open again for business.

“We need marijuana peace,” Shaw said. “We need less stress and less violence and marijuana can help with both.”

She isn’t a medical doctor, a therapist or a psychiatrist but she can talk like all three.

Dan, the former self-identified smuggler, raved about Marin Alliance.

“This place has been good for the community,” he said. “What’s happening here is just the beginning of something bigger and maybe even better.”

Maybe so! Then again, if Jeff Sessions has his say and his way, even Marin Alliance will be closed down once again and Lynnette Shaw will have to campaign for marijuana all over again.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland, Dispatches from an American War. He shares story credit for the feature film, Homegrown.

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