MARIJUANA LEGAL, FOR THE MOMENT
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- What do you do when you sue U.S. Attorney
General John Ashcroft and win? Fifty-one-year-old Valerie Corral, a
sinewy 5-foot-tall great-granddaughter of Italian immigrants, throws
back her head, laughing, her hands reaching to the clouds, hips
wiggling, feet stomping.
"It's my happy dance!" she says, throwing her arms around her husband,
She has also planted an acre of marijuana.
The decision that lets the crop remain is just one round in a long
Last month, a federal judge in San Jose issued a preliminary
injunction banning the Justice Department, including the Drug
Enforcement Administration, from interfering with the Corrals' pot
garden, set above an ocean bluff near Davenport, about an hour south
of San Francisco. The injunction gives the judge time to reconsider
his earlier decision to allow the garden to be uprooted.
Still, the Corrals call the injunction a victory.
They share their harvest through the first legally recognized,
nonprofit medical marijuana club in America, which they founded in
1993. The club has about 250 seriously ill members who have
prescriptions from their doctors to use marijuana to alleviate their
suffering, increase their appetites and control their seizures. The
marijuana is free.
The San Jose ruling is one of a number challenging federal
restrictions on medical marijuana, which has consistently won support
in national opinion polls since 1995 but has had a mixed record in
state ballot measures.
This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to
hear another case that could undo or affirm the Corrals' right to grow
pot -- granted by state and local regulations, but denied by federal
law. A second case in federal court in San Francisco -- in which other
medicinal-use growers seek to reclaim seized marijuana -- could also
affect the couple.
The Justice Department refused comment.
For now, the Corrals are the only people in the United States growing
marijuana in their back yard backed by state law, a local ordinance
and a federal judge's injunction. And Valerie Corral has become a
heroine to proponents of medical marijuana.
"This could be the moment of the beginning of the end of this insane
war against the sick," sai
d Bruce Mirken of the Washington D.C.-based
advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. "And while the DEA and the
Justice Department characterize Valerie as a common drug dealer, all
you have to do is spend two minutes with her to know that's a lie."
During the past three decades, while sharing marijuana with sick
people, Corral has watched -- and in many cases held -- 140 friends,
ranging in age from 7 to 96, as they died of cancer, AIDS and other
"It is the greatest honor to be asked by a person who is dying to sit
with them," she said.
Reflection on those deaths has given her strength, she said -- while
battling the government, when federal agents pointed a rifle at her
head, and when her motives have been called into question.
"John Ashcroft is not someone I would have chosen to tangle with, but
I think of him, and George Bush, as lost souls," she said. "When I
look at them, I think about how they are just people, ... and that
makes them less fearsome. Ultimately we all make the same journey, and
ultimately I hope they make theirs in peace."
In fact, Corral's compassion is grudgingly respected at the DEA's San
"I'm personally impressed with her desire to help deathly ill people,"
said spokesman Richard Meyer. "It's just that she makes it look like
the way to help sick and dying people is to give them marijuana. And
that's not the case.
"There's hundreds of ways to help these people. The DEA has a lot of
compassion for those people who are sick and dying, but I think there
are many, many ways to help them without giving them marijuana."
At DEA headquarters, authorities said the issue has nothing to do with
Valerie Corral or compassion.
"This may be personal to her, but it's not personal to the DEA," said
the agency's Will Glaspy in Washington, D.C. "The DEA's job is to
enforce the Controlled Substance Act. Congress passed the laws and
charged us with enforcing them. She is attempting to use the court
system to get what she wants."
Valerie Corral's path to becoming a medical marijuana advocate began
31 years ago, the day a small airplane swooped low and buzzed a
Volkswagen she was riding in through the Nevada desert. The car went
out of control and was sent skidding, rolling and bouncing 365 feet
through the dust, brush and rocks.
Corral's slight body was flung against the roof and doors, causing
brain damage, epilepsy, and a lifetime of staggering migraines. She
took prescription drugs but still suffered convulsions, shaking and
grand mal seizures.
Then one day, Mike handed her a medical journal article that showed
marijuana controlled seizures in mice. Since then, for 30 years,
Valerie Corral says she has maintained a steady level of marijuana in
Her legal challenges began in 1992, when the local sheriff arrested
her for growing five marijuana plants. With Mike, she challenged the
law, using the defense of necessity.
Prosecutors dismissed the case, saying they didn't think they could
win before a sympathetic jury in liberal Santa Cruz. When the sheriff
arrested the Corrals again in 1993, the district attorney said he had
no intention of ever prosecuting them and told police to leave them
A few years later, the Corrals helped draft California's landmark
Compassionate Use Act, approved by voters in 1996, that allows
patients with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana. Similar laws
in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington
allow the infirm to receive, possess, grow or smoke marijuana for
medical purposes without fear of state prosecution.
But the law did not provide complete protection from
While local authorities worked with the Corrals to protect them
against theft and coordinate distribution, federal agents continued to
assert that growing, using and distributing marijuana was illegal. To
provide legal protection, the city of Santa Cruz deputized the Corrals
in 2000 to function as medical marijuana providers.
But in September 2002, federal agents raided the Corrals' farm -- just
weeks before their annual harvest -- taking the couple to jail and
pulling up more than 150 plants.
The Corrals were never charged, but the raid prompted them to begin a
legal challenge to the federal ban, aided by a team of attorneys
including University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald Uelmen and
advocates at the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit Washington
This is the case in which the San Jose judge recently ruled in their
"Representing Valerie Corral, for me, is like representing Mother
Teresa," said Uelmen, a constitutional law expert, calling her "one of
the most compassionate people I've ever met."
And one who has led a movement to a new high.