This is an article I did for West Coast Cannabis in 2009. It was one of the greatest interviews I have ever had the pleasure of doing. Tony is not just my attorney, but also one of my heroes….
I sat down with the great Tony Serra for a “privileged” interview in the conference room of his eclectic offices on the infamous strip joint lined street of Broadway in San Francisco. The interview is privileged because technically Tony is one of my attorneys. I met Tony in 2002 at his famed Halloween party that his law offices throw every year at The Great American Music hall on O’Farrell Street; But I got to know him much better after the 2007 raid on my business, Tainted Inc./Compassion Medicinal Edibles, by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. I chose Tony to be one of my attorneys because he is a well-known political activist and long-time supporter of cannabis and, of course, because he represented Brownie Mary, a volunteer that made brownies for patients in the AIDS ward of SF General Hospital, when she was prosecuted for her actions. It was obvious he was more than qualified to represent our cannabis foods case in a federal courtroom.
Tony and my other attorney, Sara Zalkin, escorted me to the front of the federal courtroom when I surrendered myself after the raid. The Judge looked up with a smile and said, “Well. Hello, Mr. Serra. How have you been?” You see, everyone in the legal world knows Tony Serra. He has been fighting some of the most highly politicized cases of the last 40 years and at 75-years-young he looks as if he is nowhere near finished. He is still full of fight and spirit at every level. His clients include the likes of Huey Newton, Dennis Peron, Ellie Nesler, members of The Symbionese Liberation Army, The Hells Angels, The White Panthers, and Earth First!, and, well, me. He says he will never retire. “I want to die defending someone in jury trial and have the Judge say ‘Well, his client is guilty as hell but give it to him because he tried so damn hard.’”
Tony’s passion is jury trials. He likens it to a fix that he needs to get to feel alive. He is a “jury trial junkie.” It is his drug of choice. The courtroom is his stage and he is a loud and buoyant player in the masterpiece that is the law. He does federal in-state trials, he does state medical cannabis trials, and he does federal cases nationwide. He has come to specialize in medical cannabis cases at both the federal and state levels, as he has a vested interest in these cases because Tony Serra is also a medical cannabis patient. “I am the experiment,” Serra says. “I began smoking grass in ‘65 or ‘66. I suppose I was always a patient, but the term medical never occurred to me. In retrospect I can see how this sacrament expanded my transcendental view and helped to medicate the stress. It adds to my life.”
I asked Tony if he was optimistic that medical cannabis would be legalized under the Obama administration. He said he was still pessimistic. “We haven’t seen anything dramatic happen, yet,” he says. “The administration could easily move (cannabis) from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 3, which is where it should be. A trial lawyer lives to hear two words: Not Guilty. I have yet to hear that. I see (Brian) Epis getting 10 years. Dr. Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer get five years each. Rosenthal is still a convicted felon. All Guilty. It is a downer.”
He believes that the overzealous law enforcement community may be jealous of those who choose cannabis. “Marijuana people are more free,” declares Serra. “It is simple. It is a form of treason and they know they must crush it. Because they know it opens up a realization for people. (Cannabis) will make you empathize with mans’ brutality against man, and people will refuse to participate. I won’t be your marine. I won’t be your bomber. I won’t kill people in the Middle East for you. Some cops have just bought this shit about marijuana and gateway drugs and being lazy. There is no one real reason for their actions.”
I asked him what he thought about the legalization efforts that were on the horizon with Tom Ammiano’s bill and the Tax and Regulate Cannabis effort for a 2010 proposition. “I haven’t completely studied them, but I don’t believe the government should be in it,” he said. “Once it is legalized the greedy corporations will get their hands in it and it creates this corporate moral disability. Some large dispensaries already practice acts of corporate moral disability. I want it to stay with the mammas and the pappas. The small and unique places. I want the government out of my closet. It should be free, man. I am never for more taxes. I am a tax resister.”
Tony is a tax resister from way back. He says he is a libertarian in that respect. In 2005, Tony was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for “willful failure to pay taxes”. He refused to pay them in an act of protest. He saw the country heading in the wrong direction and did not want to help fund the corrupt politics our country was engaged in. He served most of a 10-month sentence in Lompc Federal Prison for his beliefs and protest. He is a man of conviction.
Tony lives a very humble life. He is known for driving and old beater of a car, wearing second hand clothes, and pays himself just enough to cover his minimal expenses. I can attest to the clothing, as he wore a dress shirt with a small rip across the chest right underneath his suit jacket to my preliminary hearing. Tony is a no frills kind of guy. His reward is not in accumulating wealth and possessions. He is rewarded with a magnificent and exciting life where he makes a difference in the world of real people.
He has always had an “intrapersonal relationship” with cannabis. Tony states, “I started smoking back in the black jazz clubs in the 60’s. People would have kilos from Mexico with stems and seeds all in it, and everyone thought it was fine. I have used cannabis regularly since then and have stopped for many periods of time when I traveled or when I was in jail and I can live with or without it. I just choose to live with it. The ‘pot addict’ theory is bullshit.”
Tony admits that he has tended some small gardens in his time and that he loves to watch the cannabis plant develop into a resinous and sticky beautiful healing plant. He enjoys smoking cannabis from his pipe and does not consider himself a connoisseur in any respect as he enjoys smoking whatever he has available at the time.
Tony loves marijuana. He will undoubtedly continue to fight for the rights of cannabis patients and providers until either this war on cannabis is over or he is long gone, and he has some words of wisdom for those of us on the front lines of the cannabis movement:
“We CANNOT be complacent. We are still martyrs. The growers. The dispensaries. The patients.” He explains, “It is like the second half of a football game and we are still not ahead. We cannot say that government is coming around, because they are not. We cannot afford to sit on our hands. People must put forth a full effort. We must put in every intellectual, psychological and every kind of group effort. This happens in a myriad of ways, like protests, letter writing, and attending all types of cannabis related events. We cannot rest until we put this thing to a finale.”
Let those words marinate for a second. From a man who spent the last four plus decades inside of a courtroom watching this movement become what it is today, we can learn that this fight is far from over. Tony Serra has seen cannabis prohibition grow since LSD was still legal and they sold fresh peyote openly in Golden Gate Park, and he has fought the system on it every step of the way. We owe it to him to “put this thing to a finale.”