with Valerie Corral
By David Jay Brown
Few people in California have done more to help financially-needy patients obtain medical marijuana than Valerie Corral. It is largely Ms. Corral’s community-oriented vision which allows for many indigent patients in Northern California to obtain free marijuana, and for others to legally grow their own without fear of governmental persecution.
Understanding that a lack of financial resources prevented many needy and deserving patients from receiving high-priced medical marijuana, Ms. Corral was instrumental in drafting the provision in California’s Proposition 215 which allows patients and their care-givers to cultivate their own medicine. With her husband Michael, and their partner Alice Smith, Valerie also began and currently runs the only legally-recognized, non-profit 501(c)3 medical marijuana club in America– the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, or WAMM.
One of the things that makes WAMM different from other medical marijuana organizations is that it is entirely patient and care-giver run. They provide free marijuana to over 120 patients. They also provide patients with hybrid female plants, along with growing certificates– which are recognized by the local sheriffs and police– and instructions for the plants’ care. This creates an interdependent environment for the patients, which in many cases allows them to cultivate their own plants, or to do so for other members, under WAMM’s politically protective umbrella.
In a July 20, 1997 New York Times article Valerie was referred to as “the Florence Nightingale and Johnny Appleseed of medical marijuana rolled into one,” and in Santa Cruz, California Valerie Corral is considered a hero. Although the Corral garden was raided twice by the police in the years before the passage of proposition 215, the city and county District Attorney of Santa Cruz consistently declined to prosecute her. Thanks to Ms. Corral, Santa Cruz is leading the country as a model for community-run, medical marijuana cultivation and distribution.
Ms. Corral, herself a medical marijuana patient, was the first person in California to challenge the marijuana laws in court using the defense of medical necessity, and the Corral garden is now [according to the New York Times] considered to be the closest thing to a truly legitimate marijuana garden in America.
Ms. Corral meets regularly with the local sheriff and police chief to discuss the details of how patients can set up and run their own cannabis gardens, and distribute medical marijuana. The Mayor of Santa Cruz even honored Corral by proclamation in appreciation of her work. This is truly history in the making, as Corral has actually developed a relationship with the local sheriff and police to work with her organization, even protect the gardens. She also works with the District Attorney and Santa Cruz Health Director.
Michael Corral, also present during this interview, is an expert in marijuana botany and genetics. The Corrals have been selectively breeding dozens of marijuana strains over the past twenty years, and dutifully amassing a valuable database of information on which strains are effective in treating specific symptoms for various illnesses.
This interview was conducted at the Corral’s home on July 30, 1997 in Davenport, California. Breath-taking mountains, layered with redwoods and wild greenery descend down to the Pacific from their living room window. Among the varied botanical wonders in their garden, beautiful aromatic marijuana plants grow boldly in all their uninhibited, sexy, sunlit glory.
The Corrals are brave and visionary freedom-fighters who have made enormous strides toward creating a more compassionate future. I sensed that they are responding to a deep calling with their work, and one has to admire their many years of unwavering courage and dedication. They’re also quite fun to hang out with, as the sensuous and giggly healing vibes of the cannabis spirit shine through them.
David: Why do you personally use marijuana?
Valerie: I use it to control epilepsy. I was in a rather bizarre car accident many years ago that resulted in brain trauma, and I suffered from very intense gran mal seizures– sometimes as many as five or six per day. I was prescribed pharmaceutical drugs– which were extremely powerful– and found myself addicted to them, even though they weren’t controlling the seizures. Many epileptics find the same thing. In fact, as many as 25% of epileptics don’t respond to pharmaceutical medicine. I was one of them.
Then, in 1974, my husband Michael read in a medical journal that laboratory-induced seizures were being controlled in rats through the use of marijuana. So I decided to try it, and began using marijuana therapeutically. Any time I would start to feel what epileptics refer to as an “aura”, I would take a few hits, and be able to control the onset of the seizure. Over time it became clear that I could completely control my gran mal seizures.
David: That’s really extraordinary.
Valerie: Oh yes, marijuana is an answer. It’s an answer to something that would otherwise leave me quite limited. Our illnesses can make us prisoners. Anybody’s life circumstances can make them a prisoner to it– but we can try to find a way out. This doesn’t mean that everyone who doesn’t respond to pharmaceuticals will be able to use marijuana as an effective medicine.
But many medications which are considered effective don’t work completely. The anti-convulsants, for example, don’t completely control seizures in all patients who respond to them. Perhaps marijuana in those cases might work symbiotically. One never knows unless research is done.
David: Tell me how you came to start WAMM, and get involved with the medical marijuana community.
Valerie: Mike and I were arrested on August 12, 1992, just before our local medical marijuana initiative Measure A passed. We had been giving away marijuana to people– many of whom had cancer, and used the medicine to relieve their suffering– for eighteen years before we were arrested. After the arrest we went public. I challenged the law under the defense of medical necessity, and was the first person in the state of California to use that defense.
Primarily, the (medical) necessity defense states is that if one commits a crime, but does so to prevent a greater harm, and that there is no alternative, then in fact, no crime has been committed. Much like if there was a person drowning, and you steal a boat to save that person– you’ve committed grand theft, yes, but you also saved a life. So the intent wasn’t to steal, it was to save a life.
The medical necessity defense requires six criteria, and we met the first five. Then the final one was really involving the doctor’s knowledge of my use of marijuana. You see, that’s what’s so absurd about the whole federal government’s attack on physicians regarding 215– that doctors can’t recommend marijuana or talk with patients concerning their use of it. They’re not supposed to refer to it as a specific medicine, certainly not recommend it, and absolutely not prescribe it. And that’s absurd. It’s ridiculous because the whole reason that the necessity defense applied in my case was because of that sixth point– the point where it was common knowledge between my doctor and me.
It was made common knowledge by my using marijuana and telling my doctor, anecdotal as it was. It was the fact that I used it medicinally, and my doctor copped to that. He had to, because I told him more than eighteen years before that I had used it in that way, although he may not have taken me seriously. The point is that he was happier that I was better, and he also didn’t really want to give me pharmaceuticals, because he had witnessed the result.
There was a mixed message. He was also very uncomfortable about marijuana, as you can imagine at the time (or any time). Doctors are scared to death right now. That’s where they keep giving in to federal pressure, and buckling and becoming still more afraid– even when they have the right under state law, with recent federal district court findings.
Presently doctors have the right to recommend– not prescribe, but recommend– marijuana for five different illness, being HIV-AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, and the spasticity-related illness– anything for which marijuana can relieve spasticity in, such as with paraplegic, quadriplegic, MS patients, or post-polio myelitis.
David: That rule doesn’t apply to other drugs– even much more addictive and toxic drugs– where physicians can prescribe whatever they feel will benefit the patient. The court excluded important psychiatric illnesses, as well as all the people who find that marijuana helps them with less serious physical illnesses than the ones that you mentioned, such as headaches, anxiety, PMS, or insomnia.
Valerie: So far, but all of that just needs anecdotal evidence. What has been so far proven to the court was based on anecdotal evidence.
David: How does WAMM differ from other medical marijuana organizations?
Valerie: It’s entirely patient and care-giver run. Our main focus is to really serve ourselves and meet our own needs. So it’s more about the marijuana and the medicine than it is about engaging in having to run a business.
David: You were instrumental in getting the provision drafted into proposition 215 which allows patients and their care-givers to grow their own marijuana. Explain why this was so important.
Valerie: Well, obviously, being a patient myself, I’m in a different position than someone who is growing it to sell. All patients are. We’re also in a different position as liaison, which is another important point, because not everybody can grow their own marijuana. Some people may want to go the store or supermarket, and I think that that’s reasonable, if they can afford to do so.
So not everybody can be part of an organization that’s interdependent between patients, but I really encourage people to grow their own marijuana. Nobody needs an organization like WAMM to do it. But the organization provides safety and gains some political power because there are many of us. When we go to our city council, the board of supervisors, the sheriff, or the chief of police we have some clout.
There’s more strength in what we’re doing because we’re organized. We have identification cards and growing certificates that identify the care-giver or the patient so that the police know whose crop it is. It specifies that particular garden. It’s specific to the patient and address, and really can’t be forged or easily altered.
I think that this is what a small organization can do. It’s still small enough that we can do it. A buyer’s club is necessary in a different way, but WAMM works as a non-profit where we encourage the solicitation of donations. We hope to get more funding.
David: How is WAMM financially supported?
Valerie: Through donations. That means that what revenue we get comes primarily from the patients’ weekly donations, which is not much as most people who are ill are also poor. Probably the most money that we get would be half as much as the amount that would be paid in a buyer’s club. That’s really an unclear assessment, because we don’t get very much money. Most of the time people don’t donate any money at all, because they can’t really afford to– that’s why they’re in WAMM. They’re there because the pot’s free, and because we help each other grow, collect, and distribute it.
David: What does WAMM’s 501(c)3 non-profit status allow it to do that other cannabis buyers clubs can’t?
Valerie: I don’t know. Everybody’s functioning right now. It really depends on what happens with the federal government– what they do, and how they plan to impose restrictions to govern. What’s happening right now is basically this kind of free-market anarchy. WAMM is likely the most legal growing organization in America because we give away marijuana and don’t sell it. Most of it’s free to most of the patients. Those who can kick in money do so when they can. And people that need less, take less, so that there’s more for others. That’s really how it works. It exists on a kind of balance, which is precarious at times. We are not paid for our work.
David: Tell me about your arrests over the years, and how these legal attacks helped to shape WAMM’s development.
Valerie: We were first arrested in 1992, and challenged our felony offense with the necessity defense. Three days before our trail– when the jury was to be picked– the District Attorney said that the charges were dropped, as we met the six criteria. Having met these six criteria the attorney said that he couldn’t get a jury to convict us.
At the time, I thought that meant that we could safely grow marijuana, and that I was the first person who was free to do so. Indeed, it ended up meaning that– at least eventually. We planted another crop, and we got arrested again on September 21, 1993. They waited a little longer the following year– until the sweetness of the plant was more ripe– but that time they searched our house, and tore it apart. So Mike and I said, “this is bullshit.”
I had already met the six criteria, but what we were told was that every time you commit the crime– every time you steal the boat, in other words– your trial has to be heard. Every time you grow marijuana there’s another offense. But the thing is that my illness doesn’t change, nor does that of some others, unless you spontaneously become well. So your relationship to the use of marijuana remains the same, and it would seem that defense would still apply.
Anyway, they have yet to file charges, but they took our crop. At that point Mike and I went public and WAMM was born. The first thing that we did was begin talking to doctors. Another patient came to us, then others called, and we just started meeting more people through hospice work.
David: How has California’s passage of Proposition 215 effected WAMM?
Valerie: Two days after the passage of 215 we were granted our 501(c)3 status. The interesting thing is that it’s a “research and education” 501(c)3, which allows us to cultivate and distribute marijuana. That’s what it states in our by-laws, and that’s what was accepted by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General.
David: Why do you think the federal government is so opposed to the legal use of medical marijuana?
Valerie: I think it’s for a myriad of reasons.
Michael: One of the reasons is that the War on Drugs has become a self-perpetuating machine. Marijuana prohibition keeps a lot of people working in law enforcement and the judicial system, as well as the urine testing industry. The other reason is that marijuana may be more effective than up to 30 or 40 percent of the drugs in the PDR. So pharmaceutical companies know that this easily-grown herb could replace a lot of their expensive drugs. It’s unfortunate that they don’t spend any money to produce new drugs from the marijuana plant.
Valerie: Can you imagine? At least hundreds of single compounds could be made from the marijuana plant. They could create a whole pharmacy, and I think it’s just a matter of time before they start. They have actually already begun with Marinal (a single compound synthetic THC). But why the government works the way it does is just such a huge question, although I do think that it can come down to some pretty simple things. In my experience and observation of others through the collection of data, it appears that the whole plant works better than the single compound. I believe it works synergistically.
David: Tell me about the lawsuit that you and others have been pursuing with the Federal government– with regard to Washington’s threat to prosecute physicians who recommend marijuana to their patients– and why the Feds backed down.
Valerie: It’s a class-action lawsuit against the federal government– primarily in order to establish the right to an open dialogue between physicians and patients, regarding the recommendation of marijuana and the use of terminology as it is actually stated in 215. Essentially it’s to keep the free passage of information flowing between patient and physician.
What happened for a short period of time– between April 11 and April 30– was that it was legal for a physician to prescribe marijuana for any illness. There was a finding in federal court, a temporary restraining order against the federal government from taking any action of reprisal on anybody presently or in the future.
Then the 9th district federal court judge reviewed the evidence that was given to her regarding epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV-AIDS, spasticity, and cancer, and ruled in favor of physicians having the right to recommend marijuana to help treat these five illnesses.
After having that documentation presented to the they court found that there’s really no way that patients can avoid having conversations with their physicians about marijuana, and that physicians have the right to have the conversations and to recommend marijuana to their patient. The federal government, on the other hand, was stating that under no circumstances was a patient and a physician to ever to have this dialogue concerning about marijuana.
The court also found that a physician could not indicate where a patient can get marijuana, because that would be engaging in an illegal activity. So it isn’t the dialogue that’s illegal any longer. You can talk about anything you want. What’s against the law is to tell a patient where to get marijuana. This is silly because a patient must discuss her marijuana use with her doctor.
David: What are the remaining steps that you think need to be taken before we have fully legal medical marijuana on a national level?
Valerie: I think that each community and state will have the same opportunity that California has had.
David: But California still doesn’t completely have it. Legitimate patients are still getting hassled.
Valerie: Yes, but it depends. It’s a community-by-community response. What a lot of District Attorneys and sheriffs are saying is let’s work out in court. The DA’s are saying they want to have the day in court. All that 215 really allows is an affirmative defense. Now you no longer have to argue in court as to whether or not marijuana is medicine, and that with the knowledge of a physician in specific ways you are allowed to grow and use it. We use a recommendation form from the physician, but the most important thing is to tell your physician– just so it’s documented in your medical records somewhere that you use medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of your illness.
David: What do you think it’s going to take before they finally stop arresting people on a national level?
Valerie: On a national level I don’t know about time, or what it takes to change people’s minds and remove fear. But something important has happened. You can look out the window and see the change before your very eyes. I mean, in some ways it’s up to the individual. Mike and I have just done what we’ve done all these years, and there’s never any telling how it’s going to be exactly.
We don’t know how long it might take to move the federal government. What does it take? It takes what it always takes– political movement. It takes risk. It takes a unity of people– people speaking and making it happen. It really happens in small ways in your own community. It happens by using the affirmative defense, and by challenging the government. That’s how the prohibition of alcohol was repealed.
David: What can the average person do to help?
Valerie: In other states I think the first step is clearly to speak up. Sign a petition when you see it come around. Make it known that not only is your sheriff elected, but so is your district attorney, and these are important positions– especially to them. What they do effects how their community votes.
The sheriff’s department is often partially funded by CAMP– Campaign Against Marijuana Planting– through other agencies in the federal government, such as the office of Criminal Justice Planning, which employ the police force in their War on Drugs. It involves huge amounts of money that fund the sheriffs, and your district attorney. You want to make sure that these people know the facts about medical marijuana. A step toward understanding is just getting your district attorney, your board of supervisors, and city council to look further into the matter.
Public support is necessary, but you have to begin by not being afraid. Begin by not being afraid to speak about medicine. Remember that in California we voted for it, cloistered behind curtains. Behind the doors, and the walls of our ballet boxes, we were willing to state that we support marijuana as medicine. Now I think more and more communities will begin discussing it more openly, because obviously many people and many communities believe that it’s medicine. How much more obvious could it be?
So there’s safety in that. In California it’s not against the law anymore. We have to remember that. And that’s a hard thing to do, because the fear is so instilled. People that have had jobs where they have been getting paid for thirty years to believe that marijuana is evil, and to arrest people who use it, are going to find that a difficult concept, as are people who have hidden behind the fear of criminality.
I think that those of us cultivating and distributing medical marijuana in California right now need to be honorable and accountable for our actions because we represent this issue. Presently, patients and care-givers will be viewed with scrutiny, and may be responsible for setting standards for the rest of the country. I think that it’s up to the patients and the care-givers not abuse this issue, and that regardless of our personal belief about the Drug War, 215 is specific to people who are seriously ill and their physicians.
David: How do you see WAMM evolving in the future?
Valerie: My hope is that WAMM remains fluid, and changes just as life changes, beyond all of our dreams and imaginings, beyond what is limited by the mundane, opening our perception to include what we have yet to discover.
It is my belief that WAMM has already been tremendously successful. Successful because what we have given birth to is truly revolutionary. We have been instrumental in the creation of a remarkable model, a gift that could benefit and serve to offer a new and personal approach to medicine.
David: What are you currently working on?
Valerie: The WAMM World Wide Web site. We’re always working on cultivation. That’s the main thing– cultivating plants and dealing with human suffering. We’re just working with each other and with the laws on a daily basis. We’re involved in one another’s lives and dying process. We’re friends. WAMM isn’t just about marijuana, but what it takes to survive, to live well through this life into our deaths.
David: Why do you think it’s best to grow your own?
Valerie: For one thing growing and harvesting gets people out of bed, and maybe it helps them out of the confines of their illness. But more importantly, from talking to many people about growing marijuana, I think that there’s something that happens when you grow your own, something symbiotic between the plant and the grower– especially for people who are sick. Our friends often tell us that the very best pot they’ve ever smoked came out of their own soil. Folks talk about how great the marijuana that they’ve grown is.
I think that there is something to that. I think that when we grow our own medicine and use it in to heal ourselves, and feel better, there’s this really remarkable connection that symbiotically happens with the plant, and it makes it the best.
I think that it’s true that when we nurture this plant we nurture ourselves. When it’s so much a part of our lives the plant responds in some way as it grows. Plants cared for from seedlings. You sexed them, and carefully tended and handled these plants (laughter), and they grow into these beautiful, luscious, exquisite medicinal females which alter so much for us. They change the way that we live, and the way that we perceive our lives.
For more info on the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical marijuana got to www.wamm.org