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Joint Effort

Santa Cruz scholar Wendy Chapkis co-authors a new book about WAMM's medical pot crusade.


Wendy Chapkis makes no bones about the fact that she was not exactly an impartial researcher when she began writing her new book Dying to Get High with Richard Webb. A UCSC alum who splits her time between Santa Cruz and Maine, where she's a professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Southern Maine, Chapkis first met Valerie and Michael Corral in the '80s, before they founded the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana and planted their lush marijuana garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That doesn't mean she was always a believer. "Valerie told me that she used marijuana medicinally and I thought, "Yeah, yeah right, sure. Like most people in the '80s I had never heard of marijuana used medicinally," Chapkis says.

It wasn't until she walked into her first WAMM meeting years later that she lost all preconceived notions of what a collective of marijuana-smoking patients was. "I expected some kind of social scene that was mostly about people sitting around getting high together," she says. "But I was struck by the number of wheelchairs and how old people were." Instead of a roomful of hippies lolling around in a cloud of smoke, she saw sick and dying people, some in the advanced stages of cancer and AIDS, discussing who was in the hospital, who needed someone at their bedside and who needed meals delivered to them. Though in the book she admits these meetings can take on a rambling tenor, the experience was eye-opening. Chapkis, who interviewed exotic dancers, porn stars and prostitutes for her 1997 book Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor, began compiling interviews with the patients and volunteers who made WAMM possible.

This all began in WAMM's golden age, before the 2002 DEA raid that spooked its members and donors, decimated the garden and began a legal battle that continues today between WAMM, the city of Santa Cruz and the federal government over WAMM's right to grow and distribute free medicinal marijuana and cannabis products to its members.

"I was already out there for a year doing research, and talking to Richard Webb. We had started to explore the idea [of a book]. It was the raid that finally cemented it," Chapkis says. "I decided I have to add my voice in whatever form I can to say 'Enough, stop.'"

In the course of the book's writing, Chapkis saw the farm raided, the Corrals arrested, the charges disappear along with the confiscated marijuana and an injunction against the DEA instated and yanked again. She saw the garden when it was legal and when it was illegal. She also saw many WAMM members die, some of whom insisted their interviews appear in the book with their real names, as a legacy.

While Chapkis and Webb enumerate the difficulties facing the legitimization of marijuana--the assumption that pills are the only real kind of drug, and the troubling notion that, yes, patients are stoned and, God forbid, enjoying themselves as well as being anesthetized--they point the finger squarely at the federal government for impeding research and harassing groups like WAMM, who've worked closely with local law enforcement and government to make sure their operation is run responsibly. Chapkis extends that blame to cases like the recent Pacific Avenue debacle, in which five members of the Local Patients Advocacy Group of Santa Cruz were arrested, an operation that local authorities have characterized as a dressed-up street corner operation.

"For me, the question isn't so much whether the kind of illegal activity engaged in by the group on Pacific Ave discredits legitimate patient-caregiver cooperatives like WAMM, as it is whether these continued arrests point to a failure with our national policy of prohibition," she wrote Metro Santa Cruz in an email.

Chapkis and Webb are going on a book tour to promote Dying to Get High, and a third of the profits from sales will go directly to WAMM. Though the organization and the county of Santa Cruz recently won the right to continue their lawsuit against the federal government over the 2002 raid, they are teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Monetary contribution aside, Chapkis hopes that increasing the Corrals' profile will also make it harder to shut them up. "The more their story gets out there, the more difficult it will be to arrest Michael and Valerie, and the members of WAMM," she says. "I hope it makes their lives a little safer."

WENDY CHAPKIS AND RICHARD WEBB The authors will read from 'Dying to Get High' and take questions on Sunday, Oct. 5, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. They will also appear Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 12:30pm at College Eight, UCSC.

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