SAN FRANCISCO -- In 1974, Valerie Corral began treating her seizures with homegrown cannabis. Forty-one years later, the iconic organization she co-founded to help others heal with marijuana is in danger of closing permanently.
The Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, California, provides medical cannabis to seriously ill patients at little or no cost. Founded in 1993 by Valerie and Mike Corral, WAMM functions as a cooperative: Instead of purchasing marijuana like one would at a traditional dispensary, the collective's 850 members receive low- or zero-cost bud, depending on need and ability to donate. Those who can't afford to donate are encouraged to volunteer for the collective in exchange for access to cannabis grown in WAMM's garden. That can mean helping harvest the plants, filling cannabis capsules, providing end-of-life care for the seriously ill or organizing a yard sale to raise funds. The nonprofit operates entirely off of donations from past and present members.
"In California, WAMM is one of the only true collectives," Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance said. "People that partake in the medicine help grow the medicine. The whole process of cultivation is part of the healing and is part of the community."
That model, however, has left the collective financially vulnerable. Confronted with the possibility of folding, WAMM is now turning to the community it has served for two decades for help.
The Corrals began living on the land where WAMM now operates in 1986, when they befriended Alexander Peter Leith, an English landowner who offered them partial ownership in exchange for keeping up the property and making improvements to it. (After Leith’s death in 2001, the Corrals took out a mortgage to buy his portion of the property.) The couple, who have since divorced, had been growing their own marijuana for years after they discovered it helped rid Valerie of grand mal seizures she had been experiencing since getting in a car accident at age 20.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Valerie Corral said the marijuana regimen she began in 1974 transformed her life.
“Illness is a profound kind of prison,” she said. “It changes everything.”
Mike had read in a medical journal about how marijuana was being used to treat seizures in rats.
“She was having no relief from the medication she was on,” Mike said. "If this is real, then we need to do something."
The couple decided to cultivate their own marijuana to see if it would help curb Valerie's epilepsy. Over the course of two and a half years, Valerie went from as many as five seizures a day to zero, eventually getting to the point where she was taking none of her prescribed drugs.
"It was a different pace of living in the world without the kind of isolation that illness brings," she said.
Witnessing Valerie's success firsthand, the couple began quietly providing marijuana to friends and family with cancer and HIV.
In 1992, the Corrals were arrested for growing five marijuana plants in front of their home. The charges were dropped after Valerie claimed medical necessity, but they were arrested again the following year. While they faced no charges in the second arrest, the case drew the attention of the local media, landing the couple on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. As word spread of how they were using cannabis as medicine, people began calling the Corrals to see if they too could get help. Fortuitously, Santa Cruz voters had recently approved a measure ending the city's prohibition of medical marijuana. Not long after that, WAMM was born.
“It’s about sharing," Valerie said. "It's about living in the kind of world that I want to die in."
The collective started out providing medical marijuana primarily to terminal patients. As demand grew, so did the size of their operation. Mike, the son of two farmers, handled most of the cultivation, while Valerie worked with patients and managed the group's political advocacy. In 1996, Valerie co-authored Proposition 215, which legalized the possession and cultivation of medical cannabis, making California the first state in the union to legalize medical marijuana.
Despite California's drug policy progress, WAMM's legal headaches weren't over. Following a Supreme Court ruling that California's medical marijuana law did not preclude federal prosecution, the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush began to crack down on medical grow sites across the state. In 2002, DEA agents raided the collective's garden, taking a chainsaw to 167 cannabis plants and arresting the Corrals on conspiracy and drug charges.
The raid shocked local officials, with whom the Corrals had cooperated for a decade. Two weeks after the raid, they stood with members of the collective on the steps of Santa Cruz's City Hall and gave away marijuana in protest of the feds.
"We are not California wackos," Santa Cruz's mayor at the time, Christopher Krohn, told The New York Times in 2002. "We are trailblazers. We are normal. This is not an attempt to embarrass the DEA but rather a compassionate gathering in support of sick people who need their medicine."
The Corrals received an outpouring of public support after the raid decimated their marijuana supply. The city joined the collective in a lawsuit against the federal government, challenging the Justice Department's authority to interfere with the state's medical marijuana law. In 2004, a federal judge ruled in the collective's favor, a landmark decision that gave them the OK to continue growing and distributing marijuana to low-income patients.
Since the DEA setback, WAMM has continued to expand its garden and open up membership to more individuals. However, financial constraints may prove to be an even bigger challenge to the collective than federal law enforcement.
Mike and Valerie have been separated since 2001, and their divorce became final last July. In April 2013, Mike decided to move on from his role with WAMM and open his own cannabis consulting shop. While he remains a supporter of the organization he co-founded, he can no longer financially maintain his ownership of half of WAMM's land. Valerie, meanwhile, lacks the funds to buy him out.
Faced with the prospect of closure, both Mike and Valerie Corral have been working with WAMM's board of directors to find a way to keep the organization on the land and providing marijuana to those in need. In the meantime, the property has been listed for sale.
"Mike has been incredibly generous since the very beginning of the collective, and especially over the last few years, and that's one of the reasons WAMM has been able to sustain our mission of service," Valerie said. "But he can't afford to postpone sale of the land indefinitely, so now we need to seek that same generosity from people whose lives have been touched, directly or indirectly, by our work."
In May, Valerie and WAMM launched an Indiegogo campaign with the initial goal of raising $150,000. As of Tuesday, 285 people had donated over $28,000 to the campaign. Although there's no hard deadline for the fundraiser, the financial burden of owning the land has prompted the Corrals to act as quickly as possible.
In addition to the crowdfunding effort to help buy the land outright, Valerie says the organization is open to finding a buyer willing to secure the land and let WAMM pay it off through a long-term lease-to-own agreement, so long as the collective can remain independent.
Without meeting its fundraising goals or finding a financial partner, WAMM -- after surviving multiple arrests and the DEA raid -- will be forced to close its doors.
“WAMM really represents the heart of the medical marijuana movement,” Mike said. “And as such, I think it’s really, really important for WAMM to be able to continue.”
Marijuana advocates offered similar praise for the work WAMM has done over the years.
"WAMM has improved the quality of countless patients’ lives," Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project said. "Their courage and commitment to compassion in the face of adversity has been truly remarkable. They are caregivers in every sense of the word.”
"It's an amazing example of people participating in their own healing," Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance said. "Here are folks who the traditional health care system said, 'We're just going to leave them for dead.' Valerie saw these folks as people who were not at the end, but people who had a lot to contribute."
Despite WAMM’s current troubles, Valerie says she wouldn’t change the way the collective has operated for over two decades.
“I think we would not have been successful [operating a traditional dispensary],” she said. “We would not enjoy the success we have now, nor would we be able to touch so many lives. We would not have been able to help people heal themselves.”