The state’s oldest marijuana collective survived federal raids and arrests. Can it survive divorce?
In the midst of a veritable “marijuana gold rush,” the oldest marijuana collective in the U.S.—based in Santa Cruz—may be closing its doors and losing the 106-acre field that has saved terminally ill patients from immense pain and suffering.
WAMM, short for the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, started serving Santa Cruz clients in 1993, when the idea of legalized pot was barely a fantasy. The collective has survived two raids—one by local police, who dropped charges, and one by the DEA, which WAMM sued and won. Now, though, they face an entirely different challenge: divorce.
Valerie Leveroni Corral, 62, and her husband Mike Corral, saw their friends dying in the middle of the AIDS epidemic and thought that used medically, marijuana could provide the comfort and healing patients needed in the face of harsh medical treatments that sapped their appetites and left their bodies writhing in pain.
The couple started growing marijuana illegally in the 1970s after Valerie found that it helped her with epileptic seizures, and then they took advantage of a loosening of state laws allowing medical cannabis and set up a garden and collective.
Unlike the marijuana stores that have been growing like weeds around the state and making owners millionaires in Colorado and Washington, WAMM was never about the money. Marijuana wasn’t bought and sold here. It was given in return for donations, and many of the 600-800 regular patients paid their way by gardening and processing the crops for others.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come in and said ‘I’m going to make you rich,’” says Valerie Corral, the fiery 5-foot Italian sparkplug who was born in San Francisco and runs through the collective with the energy of a bullet train. “I’m very much insistent that WAMM remains true to our mission of service. Just because the industry can supply cannabis legally, it doesn’t mean it’s more available for people who are seriously ill and financially compromised, as well as physically compromised.”
She says legalization doesn’t necessarily help the 85 percent of her patients who have terminal and severe illnesses.
“We’re just trying to get enough funds to help people who are sick and dying,” she says. The group also runs a hospice.
Now, WAMM could lose everything in the divorce from her husband of 40 years.
“A divorce changes everything,” says Corral. “Mike’s moved on. He’s not working with WAMM anymore. I don’t have the money to buy him out and WAMM can’t just stay there.”
She’s asking the locals who helped her fight off DEA teams to help her keep the property. The has group launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo.com, hoping to raise $150,000 to keep the farm and grow house.
To continue as a nonprofit, she says she has to come up with the funds, based on an appraisal, to pay exactly what the land is worth. Their site is in a lush, green location on the North Coast. They also have an office at 815 Almar Ave., on the Westside, where clients can get counseling and medical support and advice.
Members are worried about the future and hope the community will support the fundraising.
“WAMM has been an essential part of Santa Cruz’s healthcare system and an integral part of the community for over 20 years,” says author David Jay Brown. “As a WAMM member since 1995, I’ve personally witnessed how medical marijuana from the community-run WAMM garden can help save people’s lives and greatly reduce suffering—as this valuable medicine would otherwise be too expensive for many of the low-income patients that WAMM serves.”
Valerie has helped more than 150 people pass into the next phase of life and says watching people die has helped her commitment to help others.
“We deal with people who are facing death, losing homes, losing cars,” she says. “By the time the average cancer patient dies, it costs $250,000, especially with treatment. You pay 20 percent of that if you have good insurance. The costs are huge. Huge! And you don’t pay at the end. You pay all along.”
She’s worried about losing her life’s work and what it has given to so many.
“We’re in the 11th hour hoping the value of people’s lives and the way we’ve been in service to a community that’s made hundreds of millions of dollars has an impact in the interest of human health and human kindness,” she says. “We can’t disregard the origin of this work. We called this the ‘Compassionate Use Act.’’’
The Corrals’ were arrested by local officials in 1992 and by a federal DEA task force in 2002, but not charged in either case. Officials feared no jury would convict them.
To protest the second arrest and send the feds a message, the mayor and members of the City Council permitted the collective to distribute marijuana outside City Hall, an event that made national news.
DEA agents had chainsawed 167 plants, and were forced by WAMM members, who blocked their U-Hauls at the farm gate, to surrender the Corrals from their custody. Then the City and County of Santa Cruz filed suit against the feds, claiming the federal government under President George W. Bush was denying the rights of patients and using the case for publicity. Some 15 of the collective’s patients died while the plants were gone.
The collective won the suit and has been growing the federally illegal medicinal herb ever since.
“When the DEA raided WAMM, held Valerie, Mike and others at gunpoint, and threatened them with life in prison, the federal government basically thought they could eliminate the most compliant, compassionate, effective and selfless medical marijuana organization in the country, and the medical marijuana movement would fold or go back underground,” says journalist David Bienenstock, a former High Times editor who now works for Vice. “Instead, WAMM and the Santa Cruz community stood up to those terribly misguided bullies, and everything changed as a result. I think it’s safe to say that literally millions of people have benefited from this brave stand, not just directly by becoming WAMM members, but because the truth about medical marijuana has finally come out, and now we see this movement spreading to even the most conservative communities in California and around the world.”
At least there’s an upside to the new campaign: the collective has set up some fun perks for donors.
A $5 donation gets a thank you note. Donate $100 and you get a T-shirt; raise it to $420 and you get a marijuana leaf plate made by artist Don Ivey, a member whose partial paralysis is helped by the plant. A $1,500 donation includes a tour of the gardens and a meal with “Nonna Marijuana, the Queen of Weed Cuisine,” Valerie’s 93-year-old mother, who is famous for posting recipes on the Internet. That donation, available only to patients, includes rooms at the Davenport Roadhouse and a shuttle to the farm. Eight guests can do the tour and meal.
Brown says the loss of WAMM would be an incredible blow to the community. “People would die without WAMM and others would needlessly suffer. WAMM’s compassionate model sets the gold standard for medical cannabis collectives, as no one in the organization goes without medicine and every member contributes to making WAMM what it is,” he says. “WAMM owes its hard-earned existence to the brave and heroic work of Valerie and Mike Corral, and to the high spirits of its members. Despite the many serious ailments that WAMM members suffer from, there is always a strong feeling of hope and optimism at the weekly meetings—and this supportive community spirit is every bit as healing as the medicinal herb.”
The WAMM fundraising campaign can be found at indiegogo.com. PHOTO: Valerie Leveroni Corral, co-founder of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), the oldest marijuana collective in the U.S., outside the WAMM garden. BRAD KAVA