WAMMfest celebrates a reprieve from city council,
and a national medical marijuana victory
The group attempts to change perceptions, one tent at a time “What’s the point of this? We’re on our way to a marijuana fest and we can’t even smoke there,” complains a tall, blonde woman as she attempts to speedwalk and smoke a joint at the same time. She and her friends are passing through downtown Santa Cruz on their way to WAMMfest and are clearly oblivious to the festival’s point.
The whining blonde stoner was one of the event’s few attendees to mistake it for a 420 kind of celebration, however, as that expectation is one typically reserved for WAMMfest dissenters.
WAMMfest is the annual fundraising event for the WoMen’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a local collective of patients and caregivers that provides more than 250 seriously ill men and women with medicinal marijuana. Every year, co-founders Mike and Valerie Corral struggle with 420-esque representations of WAMMfest in the media and amongst opposition. And while these portrayals are largely inaccurate, they don’t expect them to go away any time soon—even if there was no hazy cloud of smoke looming over San Lorenzo Park, where the festivities were held last Saturday, or even any whiff of ganja to be caught in passing.
“Those misconceptions won’t change because of this,” says Mike. “They will always be there. Those misconceptions are driven by fear of the unknown. “
As Mike spoke, the Rubber Souls belted out Beatles’ covers on the duck pond stage behind him, and folks ranging in age from tykes in strollers to elderly in wheelchairs milled around the booths and barbecues beneath the Saturday sun.
“This is wonderful,” he says. “It’s a beautiful day, everybody’s friendly, everybody’s having a wonderful time.” The event is in part an anniversary event for the Sept. 5, 2002, DEA raid of the WAMM facilities, and a celebration of how far they’ve come since—thanks to community support.
“Part of the whole thing for us here is that the Santa Cruz community has been so wonderful all throughout the years,” he adds. “This isn’t just a party for us, but for all of Santa Cruz.”
The cheery tranquility of the festival did a good job of hiding any sign of battle scars that WAMM may have retained from obstacles they faced in the preceding week, if any.
Just days before the event, more than 20 members of WAMM stood before the city council at the Tuesday, Sept. 23 meeting to request they lift the smoking ban on San Lorenzo Park for the afternoon of the festival, as they had the previous year.
The representatives of WAMM, many of whom are living with grave illnesses, squeezed their testimonies of how medical marijuana and WAMM has improved their quality of life into the two minutes given to them for public comment. Among them was Charlie Phillips, who, with a voice as shaky as his two wrinkled hands clutching the paper from which he read, repeated their general plea: “I, Charlie Phillips, respectfully request a reasonable accommodation.” One after another, they encouraged the city officials before them to reconsider their vote.
With the ban in place, cardholders would have been limited to medicating by sharing the same three vaporizers—a big risk for sick people. A woman with a serious immune illness stood before the council to explain that, “Asking me to take marijuana with a vaporizer could kill me.”
The vote had been tied 3 to 3 at the previous week’s city council meeting, with the fourth proponent, Tony Madrigal, absent. Madrigal was present for this re-vote, but Mayor Ryan Coonerty, also in favor of lifting the ban, was not. Things didn’t look so good for WAMM.
Once again the vote was split 3 to 3, effectively ending the discussion on making an exception to the smoking ban. But once the murmurs of disappointment had simmered down, councilmember Ed Porter, who had voted against the lift, made an unexpected motion to modify the proposal and vote again. His amendment specified in the proposal that smoking may occur “only within a single enclosed designated tent.” All in favor? This time the vote passed 5 to 1, with Lynn Robinson as the lone naysayer.
Outside the meeting, in between hugs and handshakes with other WAMM members, Valerie Corral, who hadn’t expected a victory, was still a bit stunned.
“I did not expect that shift and I was very pleased to see Ed Porter understand the depth and importance of our work,” she says.
Although the ban wasn’t lifted for all of San Lorenzo Park, WAMM members were content with the space they were allowed—a smoking tent fashioned from an array of colorful tapestries and quilts, complete with a gatekeeper to check for legal identification. But while the victory was indeed a morale-booster for WAMM, the members did not feel that the event would’ve played out much differently had the ban not been lifted.
“I don’t think it would’ve been different,” Mike Corral says. “There would’ve been people who would’ve been smoking more blatantly as a ‘hey screw you’ kind of thing and that’s what we don’t want to have happen.”
They expected that WAMM members who need to medicate regularly would’ve done so regardless of the council’s ruling, or else simply not attended. But Charlie Hall, WAMMfest’s event planner, insists that the principle of lifting the ban was in line with WAMM’s objective to normalize the use of medical marijuana.
“People would’ve had to deal, all day, with the fear that they would be persecuted for using their medicine,” Hall says, his voice calm and barely louder than a whisper. “I doubt that would’ve actually happened, but what it does is it changes things internally and it makes your medicinal use pushed back to the back alley again. And what we’re trying to do, and what is absolutely deserved of this movement, is that it becomes normalized and that we address the fears and concerns and bring the information out to the public.”
More than anything, the struggle against the ban gave WAMMfest ’08 a surge of publicity and a resulting increase in attendance from the amount of media attention it garnered, not all of which was positive.
“Any news is good news,” Valerie says. “That’s the way it works. It’s getting us a ton of publicity we couldn’t afford.”
In reality, WAMM has had bigger things to worry about. In August, they were part of lawsuit that resulted in a first-of-its-kind federal ruling for medical marijuana in this country—a victory that, while they feel is monumental, has received hardly any media coverage in comparison with their city council rift. Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel presided over the case Santa Cruz v. US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and made an unprecedented ruling that denied the federal government the right to subvert state-held medical marijuana laws, as protected by Amendment 10 of the U.S. Constitution.
As for why the news hasn’t made the news, the Corrals have a hunch that people are more keen on matters that are easy to digest—such as the “battle” between WAMM and the city council.
“People don’t understand how big of a ruling that really was and how far reaching of an affect it can have if it is successful in what we want to be able to do with it,” says Mike. “[From here] we are just going to continue our work, and that ruling helps us continue our work. It helps us stay safe.”
Comforted by both the federal and city level victories, WAMM can now concentrate on jumping other hurdles on their path, the largest of which is an ongoing financial struggle. The organization stays open on a month-to-month basis, relying on continuous funding to keep its doors open to the patients. The success of this year’s WAMMfest will alleviate some of their funding blues, helping to “buy us another month, at least,” according to Mike.
“It is a huge benefit, but it certainly can’t keep us running all year,” agrees Valerie. “But it augments our monthly income.”
More so than an effort to substantiate WAMM, the festival was geared at gathering the community in celebration of itself. For, as they adamantly persist, WAMM probably wouldn’t be what it was if it were anywhere other than Santa Cruz.
“I’ve always reminded myself and everybody else to be thankful that we live in the community of Santa Cruz—it’s a special place,” Mike says. “I don’t know that Valerie and I could’ve started WAMM in, say, Fresno. This wonderful place is the reason we can do what we do.”