Fires, Festivals, and Freedom…Oh My!
How Valerie Corral’s WAMM Project Continues to Beat the Odds
By Mickey Martin
The Women’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana is the nation’s oldest organization focused on providing cannabis to the sick and dying for medical use. Their mission began in 1993 to create a model where patients could find relief in cannabis through a compassionate and caring program. They consider themselves to be a unique organization in that they are a “patient self-help alliance” that bases their membership on need rather than the financial capability of the patient. The organization produces cannabis medicines for over 170 patients currently, but they are looking to expand their outreach to help sustain the organization. The model is based on membership donations and volunteerism; therefore more members make it easier to stay afloat.
In August, all was almost lost as massive fires consumed the region and the garden and homes were nearly destroyed in the carnage. Valerie was preparing for a short break to travel to Seattle Hempfest to speak about her work in the community when flames began to consume 100-foot-tall redwoods surrounding the property. “I was awe struck,” she recalls. “I cannot express deeply enough my gratitude for the Oceanside and Encinitas firefighters that saved our homes and gardens. We were incredibly fortunate.” She is glad she stayed, and she believes the relationships formed with the firefighters motivated them to work hard to spare her home from burning. “They were supposed to be working 24 hour shifts on and then resting for 24 hours, but many of the firefighters came to our house during their allotted rest period and volunteered on their own time. They were extremely generous,” said Valerie.
Out of the 106-acre property about 75% of it burned and the group has a lot of work to do repairing roads and cleaning up, but Valerie is grateful for what the fire did not consume. Not only were the houses and gardens spared, but atop a hill where WAMM members whom have passed away are buried the fire would not touch. “The firefighters called it the island and asked us what was up there,” she says. “We told them it was our graveyard. It was profound.” This surreal situation has left Valerie with a renewed sense of commitment and purpose. The tragedy that this fire could have been leaves one to ponder why this special place in history was spared the wrath of Mother Nature’s most destructive force. We can only reason that it is because there is still a lot of work to be done.
The fire will not interrupt the service to WAMM patients. “Even the DEA raids did not deter our services,” says Corral. “Our dedication to providing medicine to the sick and dying is stronger than ever.” The DEA raid of WAMM on September 5, 2002 was a wake-up call and a rallying cry for the movement, as everyone saw firsthand the destructive and intolerant nature of the Drug Enforcement Agency on the most vulnerable in our community. As agents were raiding the garden and holding Valerie and her partner Mike Corral, patients gathered at the gate of the property blocking the exit and demanding the release of their caregivers. After negotiation with local authorities and a promise the Corrals would be released the patients agreed to peacefully disperse.
On September 17th of that year, less than two weeks after federal agents raided and attempted to shut down the collective’s operations, they organized an effort to distribute medicine to patients on the steps of Santa Cruz city hall in a response to the violent raids. The City of Santa Cruz has been one of the group’s largest and most committed supporters, recognizing WAMM as an integral part of the city’s health care system. The City of Santa Cruz signed on as co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit that WAMM filed against the federal government stemming from the 2002 raids on their garden. Valerie works closely with the city on many projects and was an instrumental part in helping them to implement a medical marijuana I.D. program.
The city also allows the organiation to put on WAMMfest, a yearly gathering of patients and supporters in beautiful San Lorenzo Park. The Festival is in its seventh year, but sixth festival, as one year the funding was simply not available and a small party for patients was held instead. WAMMfest is a free event for the community with music, booths, fun, and dancing for all to enjoy. It is a fun and low-key event that is based on love and caring and not money. The event has traditionally performed marriage ceremonies for those in the community, dubbed “weedings” by Valerie, who normally performs the ceremonies. The festival is held annually on the last Saturday in September and has grown every year since its inception.
Valerie’s work in the community goes far beyond simply providing cannabis. She is working on a project now called “Design for Dying.” The project focuses on keeping terminal patients in their home and a warm environment through their final days. “We focus on helping people approach death how they want, instead of them dying in a hospital or hospice situation,” says Valerie. She tells of a patient who for four months received 24-hour care from the project and was able to pass on their terms. “Ask yourself what does it mean to suffer?” she poses. “People are destined to die the way they lived, so we must reflect more deeply on our time on this planet. We get into life through a 10 cm opening but we are not lucky enough to get out of something that big. Death is an equalizer.”
WAMM was almost forced to close in January, as the economy worsened and funding continued to dry up. Her donation based model found trouble sustaining itself, as many patients that they depended on for donations and funding were now unable to contribute. “When we have less, we need to share more,” enlightens Corral. “Unfortunately our culture is based on consumption and we continue to suck the planet dry. I cannot tell people how important it is to live well and care for one another.” Her philosophies are rooted in her 20 plus years of working with patients and seeing firsthand how caring for one another changes lives.
When she began this project there was the belief that there were going to be WAMM like models for patients all over the state, but instead she has seen the rise of the dispensing collective become the focal point of patient access. “Most dispensaries act more like pharmacies these days than patient care services,” says Valerie. “It is difficult for patients who are already poor from their debilitating illness to have to pay the high prices for medicine that some of these so-called collectives charge. WAMM is a true collective model. We do not just use the word.” The collective has weekly meetings and patients are asked to give what they can to support the efforts. The medicine costs about 5 dollars a gram to produce, which is the suggested donation from patients to keep the organization moving forward.
If you want to become a member of this conscious and caring organization visit www.wamm.org or call (831) 425-0850 for more information. The need for open-minded and inspired individuals has never been higher, so reach out and see what you can do to make the WAMM and Design for Dying projects a reality for years to come. Our community needs more impassioned and storied organizations like this one to advance our cause into the future. Whether it is fire, the feds, or funding, this organization continues to beat the odds and continues to provide a wonderful service for its membership. Donate, join, or be an active part of the WAMM effort. It is one of the true gems of the medical cannabis movement and deserves all of our support to ensure they are successful and can continue to serve the community is so many great ways.
This article was published in 2009 in West Coast Cannabis magazine…