Creating a battle she is more than likely to lose, Valerie Corral is taking on her state, the nation, and the drug war institution in hopes of making marijuana legal for medicinal purposes. Despite legal battles, she has redefined the drug argument and is gaining ground on the perceptual and personal levels.
When discussing the legalization of marijuana, you are bound to stir emotions. From "Just Say No" parents who really believe their kids will turn out like characters from Reefer Madness to pro-legalization advocates who can list all the products Thomas Jefferson had in his household that were made of hemp.
The arguments however, get fuzzier when the idea of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes is raised. It disintegrates the "Oh, they just want to legalize it so they can smoke it" rhetoric from the right and puts the emphasis on people trying to relieve suffering, as opposed to pot-advocates looking for an alternative way to get high. If nothing else, it forces most Americans to step into a gray area and ask a question they don't want to answer: "Should marijuana be okay in some cases and not in others?" At the heart of this question is another more important one: Should people be allowed to have alternatives to modern medicine?
It's a simple concept, one we all believe in: control of our own lives. Yet in many cases, from work to the decisions we make everyday, it can be quite disturbing how little control we actually have. There is no more perfect example of this than our own health. Let's face it, when most of us become ill, whether it's the flu or cirrhosis, we take exactly what the doctor prescribes. If he gives you cough medicine, you take it. If he prescribes Ritalin for your overactive child, you feed it to the kid like Kix cereal. We place a lot of trust in the physicians who treat us. That's not to say we should be performing Trepanations on ourselves, but we still should be given options in order to pick and choose what's right for our own bodies.
Valerie Corral is no different. After suffering a brain trauma in a car accident, she began having as many as five epileptic seizures a day. Unfortunately, Corral was one of the 25 percent of epileptics who don't respond to the medication prescribed by doctors. This meant suffering from the harsh side effects of the drugs, without the positive controlling effects. "I was completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of my illness," she recalled. "The epilepsy, and the medications that I took to control it, without success, were so overwhelming. It was depressing. I was living under the weight of pharmaceuticals, under the veil of debilitating drugs that did nothing to control my seizures. I literally felt like I was underwater."
For Corral and millions of people like her, the drugs were a necessary evil. But after her husband Mike read a medical journal article from 1973 detailing the effective use of marijuana to control induced seizures in rats, Valerie decided to try a different approach.
"I was taking a plethora of drugs and they simply didn't work. When Mike first showed me the article, I didn't believe that something so simple could possibly be an answer. But I was desperate. So, I began a regimen that included the very strict application of marijuana several times a day. I kept a few joints on me at all times. When I felt an aura (an indication of seizure onset) coming on, I would simply take a few puffs. Over time, to both my astonishment and joy, I found that my seizures began to diminish."
Setting aside the drug argument for an instant, what Corral was essentially doing was taking control of her treatment away from her physician and placing it in her own hands. She made sure her doctor was still involved in the treatment, by being open about her marijuana regimen, but rearranged the physician-patient relationship in order to better combat her epilepsy. This move eliminated a treatment that yielded no positive effects while causing debilitating side effects and replaced it with an effective one.
That little experiment would ultimately lead to the founding of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), the most successful medical marijuana organization in the nation. One that in the day in age of the War on Drugs was granted non-profit status by the state of California and now assists more than 200 members to deal with diseases such as HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma, and cancer by providing marijuana in several forms. However, this transition would not be an easy one.
While Corral's decision to take control of her treatment can be understood by most compassionate human beings, the legal fact was that she was committing a crime. This didn't sit well with the then sheriff of Santa Cruz County who in 1992 first arrested and confiscated her crop, sabotaging 18 years of work. To combat the prosecution, Corral decided to take a novel approach and bring the American legal system back to its roots. Valerie was the first person in the state of California to challenge the law based on the Necessity Defense, a Common Law Doctrine dating back to the Magna Carta. The Necessity Defense can easily be surmised by the following example given by Associate Professor of Philosophy Andreas Teuber:
"Say there is a fire in a maximum security prison, and the prisoners, threatened by death, break out of their cells. Surely they are not guilty of the crime of escape? Here's a situation where most of us would agree that necessity could be a defense and that the prisoners who broke out of their cells 'out of necessity' ought not to be convicted for escape."
Based on this defense, the day before jury selection the case against Corral was dismissed. Again she and Mike began a crop and out reach to patients thinking her garden to be legal after the judicial victory. During the spring of 1993, she began WAMM as a resource for herself and other members of the Santa Cruz community who were suffering from serious or fatal diseases.
Starting the operation by doing deliveries in her car, Corral was moved by what she found. As she visited members, she saw people being isolated by their illnesses. "These people were suffering from fatal diseases. They could no longer hang with their friends to play basketball or make cookies." Over time this isolation of illness created a natural evolution of people coming together as a community. As Corral states, "We found more and more people that needed marijuana to treat their illness, so we had to find a meeting place. That meeting place brought us together. We grow all of our medicine. We do not buy nor sell marijuana. The membership makes all of the products that we use, whether it's Mother's Milk (a soy based product), topical salves, or baked goods." Eventually this would lead to weekly support meetings focused on everything from how to raise funds to how to deal with the care and deaths of WAMM members.
At the same time, Corral was doing something most pro-legalization advocates have avoided, working within the system to change not only laws, but also perceptions. When asked how she eventually convinced local officials to see her side of the issue she sites one reason, tenacity.
"I kept going back, making appointments with officials. I went to the sheriff. I lobbied all the candidates when they ran for office. I spoke with city council, county supervisors, and law enforcement. When the 'old guard' retired a new sheriff was elected, Mark Tracy. He is an intelligent man who is willing to talk, and has a great deal of compassion. I prepared facts, personal stories and volumes of information from over 20 years of first hand experience, including the loss of 18 friends who had died up until 1993. That number now exceeds 100 people with whom I have had the opportunity to work."
Corral continued her relentless task of pummeling local officials with anecdotal information and real life stories of human suffering. At the same time she ensured that she was speaking to the officials, not against them. "I carefully chose the manner in which I presented the information. It's important to speak the language of the people to whom you are talking. "
These efforts, which coincided with the eventual passing of Proposition 215, helped to change the state of California's general view on marijuana's place in the War on Drugs. This is what Corral calls her "Revolution of Consciousness."
"The biggest thing I encountered when setting up WAMM was the paradigm that marijuana is valued by this illicit market that is arbitrary. We don't charge our members for it, so it creates a problem with people who think it's value is financial and monetary. Then of course, this leads to the problem of the paradigm of the drug war in that it had created this perception of illicit value in people's minds. That was as huge as the others. Now we have to redefine it. It is a revolution of consciousness."
"Besides the government's rhetorical overview of the evils of marijuana, the next obstacle I encountered in the birth and continuation of WAMM has been the monetary value associated with it. Any shift in the paradigm must be focused on the way we think about marijuana. The true value is based on the ability of marijuana to relieve suffering, not on an arbitrarily assigned fair market value created by illicit drug trade. Marijuana offers so many forms of relief including the way that it affects consciousness. This is especially important when a person is facing death."
By taking the issue of illicit value out of the equation, people making money off the suffering of others, Corral was able to smash the arguments of her detractors. "We are sick people trying to have safe access to medicine. You only seek treatment to improve the condition. If we align ourselves completely with that issue, take out the profiteering aspect, there is no argument. That applies not only to Jesse Helms and Barry McCaffery, but also to anyone who is creating access through buyer's clubs. Of course, there is a financial issue at the core of any business in America from schools to Medicare. The question remains how do we pay the rent and how do we create the structure?"
This restructuring even went as far as a carefully worded non-profit status that allowed WAMM to produce and reallocate marijuana, not "distribute" it. Since WAMM still acts like a non-profit where members do not pay for the marijuana they receive, the scary phrase "drug traffic" does not apply. Corral and WAMM are not selling anything, therefore they are merely providing a service. By California law, WAMM's members can have access and hence the organization's doors stay open to people looking for alternative forms of health care.
This brings us back home to the main point. Corral's revolutionary way of approaching the marijuana issue allows people to be a part of their own solution. It gives individuals power. As Corral states, "It's not taking what's given to us, but becoming part of the creation of our own solution. Ask me what I need. Don't tell me. Help me help myself."
With the passage of Prop. 215, legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes in the state of California, things began to expand for WAMM. Despite the non-profit status being revoked by the federal government, the organization grew to serve hundreds of members. Corral was named one of Santa Cruz County's Women of the Year in 1997. WAMM has received numerous proclamations from local and state officials, including the declaration of National Medical Marijuana Day in the city of Santa Cruz. After many years, WAMM has gathered valuable anecdotal information on how different forms of administering marijuana affect different diseases that will soon be published in a medical journal. Now other communities have reached out to Corral, using WAMM as a guidebook to create their own medical marijuana programs.
Despite all this, the simple fact is that Corral and WAMM have not won the war. Medical use of marijuana is still illegal by federal law. Corral is very aware that a bill to legalize marijuana for any use won't be forthcoming any time soon. "Simply, the government has invested so much into the drug war mythology that it must support a huge machine from probation officers, to cops on the beat, to counselors, to prisons. It's a Goliath by now. How do you redefine that monster in terms of medicine and maintain control, both financial and practical? They can't just say okay, we were simply trying to pump up government jobs and government spending. There has never been a reference to a drug conflict or police action. It is a war. We have a czar and as in any war that America wages, it is unthinkable that there be withdrawal without victory."
It would seem hopeless at this point to even consider the possibility of a national medical marijuana law were it not for the unlikeliest of allies -- the pharmaceutical companies. The possibility of a less addictive, more versatile drug to treat a range of illnesses would mean billions of dollars to the pharmaceutical industry. And in Washington, money talks.
Corral is aware of this as well when she states "the potential to make more money from using marijuana as a medicine will override the amount of money being generated from maintaining it as an illegal drug." However, simply making it legal via pharmaceutical prescription would do nothing more than relegate marijuana from being an alternative for citizens seeking control of their treatment to the realm of doctor-controlled treatment.
If Corral had her way, "I still want to have a right to choose how to consume my own medicine. I would like to see people have a safe way to access the medicine either in their back yard, through collectives like WAMM or through buyer's clubs. Don't cut off access, but expand it completely."
Whatever the eventual outcome, Corral has broken new ground and revolutionized how medical marijuana advocates can fight the
system --- by working within it.
"It's not about displacing, it is about recreating. The only way to change a system is to work within a system. Do not confuse government with people. Government is bureaucracy. I am just trying to move the machine through my work with the people. We are not backing down, because the alternative to no is great suffering."
When this article was originally written in March, the fight for legalized use of marijuana for medicinal purposes was heating up. On March 28, the case of US vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective began. This was the first case of this kind to reach the Supreme Court and was to be a very important test of whether or not the court is willing to discard it's past defenses of States' rights and squash Proposition 215.
Things looked doomed for the Cannabis Buyers Collective from the very beginning.
Justice David Souter pointed out that the popularity of Proposition 215 would make it very difficult for the government to get a conviction in any jury trial. He therefore agreed that it made strong sense for the Feds to pursue a civil case in order to nab those damn pot heads. So in other words, even if the general public agrees that a law is right and proper, go around them and use any means necessary to enforce the drug war.
In his usual open-minded comments, Justice William Rehnquist determined that the medical necessity defense was flawed since Congress had already ruled that marijuana has no medicinal value and classified pot as one of the worst illicit drugs. Gee whiz, and Congress is never wrong, so why disagree?
Prosecuting attorney, Torquemada Barbara Underwood, stated that ruling in support of medical marijuana would be tantamount to permitting the operation of marijuana pharmacies. She also pointed to synthetic alternatives, such as Marional, a synthetic version of marijuana's active ingredient that is available by prescription, which can be used to treat the same conditions that medical-marijuana advocates combat with pot. Since the pharmaceutical companies, who made all those drugs that ineffectively treat these conditions, have synthetic alternatives to marijuana available for purchase, Underwood remarked there was no medical-necessity for pot.
The essence of Underwood's comments, even if she doesn't realize it is this: there is not a War on Drugs, there is a war on certain drugs. You can have these, because these are legal and for sale. You can't have these, even though they are the same thing, because we say so.
It really sheds light on the gray area and backwardness of the War on Drugs. Nicotine, alcohol, Valium, and Prozac are fine because they have huge billion dollar industries in favor of them, but pot which has always been a more agrarian, independent business isn't OK because we have a huge business behind the War on Drugs -- prisons, cops, and other law enforcement. And in Washington money talks.
Which points us straight down the path Corral assumed we would be heading down. Monetary and political pressure from very wealthy pharmaceutical companies will eventually lead to the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
On May 14, the Supreme Court ruled against The Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective, leaving medical marijuana organizations open to prosecution by the federal government even if their state has passed a medical marijuana legalization act. At this time Val Corral and WAMM still operate their non-profit in a very un-clandestine manner.
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