SANTA CRUZ — As another summer day fades, the sick and dying begin to gather.
An elderly woman leans unsteadily on her walker. A hip young paraplegic fellow glides his electric wheelchair past a dapper old man clutching a cane. Men wiry with AIDS sidle into folding chairs in the cramped meeting hall. A blind man hunkers at the edge of the throng. There is talk of housing and finances, discussions of dipping health and impending death.
They finish by flouting federal law.
Marijuana, deemed illegal by the U.S. for any purpose, is dispensed in small baggies to the group, most of them terminally ill with AIDS or cancer. They say their brand of medicine, justified under California's 1996 medicinal marijuana initiative, brings relief from pain and suffering.
But it has also brought the federal government down on the 220-member Santa Cruz collective, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana. Last year, drug agents arrested WAMM's founders, Valerie and Mike Corral, during a raid of the group's small pot garden on a secluded hillside terrace up the coast.
The bust, part of a broader campaign by the Bush administration to trip up California's medical marijuana movement, prompted a publicity backlash. With the national media watching, Santa Cruz council members invited WAMM activists to conduct their weekly pot handout at City Hall.
Now the city and county of Santa Cruz, a liberal bastion, have joined the medical marijuana collective in a lawsuit against Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and the U.S. government.
Despite the unequivocal U.S. stance against marijuana, these advocates argue that their cultivation and use of pot -- approved by Santa Cruz police, free of profit motive, unfettered by illegal transport over state lines -- is a constitutionally protected right that trumps federal narcotics laws. They want to grow marijuana free of federal raids.
U.S. officials, who consider medical marijuana a Trojan horse for the drug legalization movement, counter that the law prohibits the use of pot by anyone, even the seriously ill. A federal judge in San Jose is expected to decide the case within the month.
Whatever the ruling, the legal battle appears destined to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Gerald Uelmen, the University of Santa Clara law professor who served on O.J. Simpson's defense team and now represents WAMM, figures he's found the perfect test case, "the gold standard" for a credible medical marijuana dispensary.
Like a Hospice
Fifty or more cannabis clubs sprang up after voters approved California's Proposition 215. Few are left. Some storefront outfits fostered a party atmosphere, selling pot to anyone with a doctor's note, no questions asked.
WAMM earned credibility as a watertight dispensary, a mix of button-down pharmacy and socialist farming collective. Patients are carefully screened, then sign a pledge to treat their pot like a prescription drug, sharing it with no one. Each doctor recommendation is vetted for authenticity.
"They've created a system that's more like a hospice than anything else," Uelmen says. "I've heard people compare Valerie to Mother Teresa. She's motivated by compassion."
WAMM has won civic proclamations and plaudits from state leaders. It has also seen 140 patients pass away. Snapshots of the departed dot a wall at its headquarters, a corrugated-steel building also harboring a surfboard maker. Since the raid, 14 have died. Valerie Corral has been at nearly every bedside.
Such humanitarian acts aren't lost on U.S. officials. Special Agent Richard Meyer, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman, says he understands Corral's devotion. But he finds her embrace of marijuana as a cure-all more than a bit disingenuous.
"Everyone knows this is simply a recreational drug," he says. "I don't think it's remarkable to give dying people something unproven as medicine. There's a lot more ways to help the sick than handing out marijuana."
At 6:30 p.m., Valerie Corral calls WAMM's weekly meeting to order.
First up is political chatter. Corral is 51, with dark hair and a peaceful soul. But on this night she is Mother Teresa with an attitude. She rails against President Bush for pushing to punish doctors who recommend pot.
"It's the war against California medical marijuana amping up," she tells the 50 patients. "But there's still a Bill of Rights. It's shredded, but we're slowly pasting it back together."
The crowd hoots.
They suffer an eclectic mix of infirmities. Aside from the AIDS and cancer patients, there are polio survivors in wheelchairs and patients with multiple sclerosis, lupus and glaucoma.
In his wheelchair, Zachary Woodford wears a wry smile.
Now 22, he was left a paraplegic in a skateboarding accident a couple of years back. Raised a strict Christian, Woodford tells his religious friends that WAMM isn't a pot club; it's a fellowship. And he never gets high, Woodford insists. A single puff, usually before bed, eases spasms and pain. With other medications, it helps.