Marijuana’s ‘Mother Teresa’

On a hillside somewhere in the steep coastal mountains near Santa Cruz, you can find a terraced garden. This is the home of the first “federally legal” cannabis plant, a title won after the planters here won a court battle.

Behind the garden near some trees, there’s a quiet patch of even more hallowed ground. This is where the cremated remains of 17 members of the Wo/Mens Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) are buried, after they lost their battles against terminal illnesses.

Valerie Corral watched them die, some of the 150 patients at whose deathbeds she’s stood watch since 1993. That was the year San Francisco-born Corral and her husband Mike co-founded one of the country’s original medical cannabis organizations.

Since then, WAMM has survived multiple raids, including a 2002 bust by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Agents cut down 150 plants with chainsaws and handcuffed a polio patient who could not get out of bed. In the aftermath, the collective filed suit against the federal government, with the full support of the county of Santa Cruz.

While the lawsuit was pending, a judge allowed the collective to keep growing — hence the honor of the first marijuana plant that Uncle Sam legally could not cut down. It was named Victoria, in part honor of the British queen who was famously prescribed cannabis for her menstrual cramps.

Then and now, WAMM provides all-outdoor, all-organic medicine — including an heirloom strain of OG Kush that tested at 31 percent THC, a marvel to today’s connoisseur — for as little as $5 a gram for people who can afford it.

For those who cannot — for the sick and dying — the flowers and whole plant oil, which some patients have credited with helping to solve cancers, are free.

These continuing efforts have earned Corral comparisons to Mother Teresa from attorneys and anti-prohibition luminaries like Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann. Recognition from the rapidly growing and increasingly commercial cannabis industry came last year; she was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Bay Area edition of the High Times Cannabis Cup.

If you ask her, none of that matters. There are other more pressing concerns — like the sick people still around today.

On a recent sunny Saturday morning, Corral, now 62, was out working, tramping around on the hillside in a pair of black Converse, watching a volunteer crew of about a dozen people — all sick people, all volunteers, all working to earn their medicine — get the garden ready to take this year’s plantings.

“I don’t think I’m special,” she said. “We work with people who are dying. That’ll humble your ass.”

WAMM is in many ways the antithesis of the “green rush.”

valeriecorralThe cannabis here, including heirloom seeds a member took home from a tribe in South Africa and “live resin,” near-liquid gold coveted by the youthful dabbing set, is not sold in any dispensary aside from WAMM’s office near Santa Cruz’s West Cliff Drive.

Most of WAMM’s members are older, with gray hair and real medical problems. They still get their cannabis free if they can’t pay. If there is profit to be had here, it’s not showing.

“WAMM has job security,” she notes, wryly. With this business model, “I have zero competition.”

How much longer this will continue, nobody can say. With legalization and regulation looming, it’s possible this could all go away.

“Big pharmacy will not allow me to practice medicine without a license,” says Corral, noting the irony that a regulated marijuana industry could in theory make everything around her outlaw again.

Not that that matters, either.

“What’s important is that fewer people would go to jail,” she says, drawing a clear line between her and some other OG cannabis advocates who take a hard line against the “wrong legalization.”

As the volunteer work crew breaks for lunch, Corral shows a visitor something special growing in a metal tomato cage: a healthy marijuana plant, about a foot-and- a-half tall. This year’s first plant, it sprouted on its own. It won’t be the last, no matter what happens in 2016.

“I’m doing what I feel is appropriate,” she says. “That’s what we’ve always done.”

Photos by Chris Roberts