Chronicle of Higher Education                                             

15 August 2008



Warring Wines; 'You Want to Fight?'; Nurse Mary Jane in Santa Cruz



From a bit farther south in California, another crop draws interest. The state has been a pioneer in the effort to legalize medical marijuana. Now Wendy Chapkis and Richard J. Webb offer a thought-provoking portrait of a Santa Cruz cannabis collective in Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine (NYU Press). In the introduction, Chapkis, a sociologist at the University of Southern Maine, and Webb, a communication-studies scholar at San Jose State University, separately explain how each came to this controversial topic.

"People always want to know whether I've actually done the things I write about," writes Chapkis. While she admits to no tokes or even a contact high, she is quick to declare that her approach is value laden, not value neutral, and asserts upfront that patients should have the right to marijuana as medicine. Webb says he was attracted by the idea of how people operated a "renegade health care organization." During research, he became a caretaker to a terminally ill member of the collective. He criticizes the disconnect between public policy and practical knowledge of the lives of medical marijuana users.

The authors blend their ethnography with history  for example, an account of how cannabis disappeared from the medical scene, but at the heart of the book are the voices of the collective.

In 1973 a Santa Cruz woman named had a serious car accident that left her with seizures and chronic pain. Valerie Corral and her husband cultivated a small number of marijuana plants for treatment. Years passed, but in 1992, the Corrals were busted by the local sheriff. The decision became whether to cop a plea or fight back. They chose to fight. The charges were dropped, and their case spurred passage of a local medical-marijuana initiative. The Corrals began giving marijuana from their garden to local residents living with cancer or HIV/AIDS. Supporters of medical marijuana argue that, among other benefits, it lessens nausea from chemotherapy and counteracts lack of appetite among AIDS patients.

On November 5, 1996, Proposition 215 on medical marijuana passed in California. Two days later, the Corrals and others incorporated the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana. From its founding, WAMM distributed marijuana free to its members, while asking but not requiring them to donate time or money to the group.

For medical-marijuana supporters, Dorothy Gibbs, 94, a WAMM member who uses marijuana to treat pain from her post-polio syndrome, is a kind of ideal poster lady. Opponents probably prefer to imagine the archetype of a young pothead bearing a trumped-up doctor's note.

Even some WAMM members were once suspicious. "Hal," 70 and suffering from severe neurological pain, admits he had expected to find "potheads who are scamming the system." Instead he looked around during his first WAMM meeting and recalls thinking, "My God, these people are really not well." Indeed, at the time of their writing, the authors say, 200 members had died.

Yet, they argue, the identities of the medical and the social user are not neatly split. Lobbyists for medical marijuana play down the drug's psychoactive effects. But what if the high leads to a sense of wellness beyond other medicinal benefits?

Susan Durst, 62, a cancer patient, is blunt and powerful on the effects of the pot-laced muffin sliver she eats every morning. "It stops the fear, it stops the worrying," she says. "It isn't just the fear of the cancer, it's the poverty, it's the fear of being evicted. It's all of it." An AIDS patient, "Charles," disputes the notion that the high is an escape, but then asks, "Why would that be such a bad thing?"

For the most part, the health risks of marijuana, the authors say, center not on the plant but on the common "delivery system" of smoking. An AIDS patient named "Jon" had little concern about smoking. "I feel like I am already dealing with everything knick-knack-paddy-whack that could kill you."  In any case, WAMM members produce alternatives. While the marijuana buds are reserved for smoking, the leaves are ground into a flour for baked goods. WAMM members also produce capsules, pot-laced soy milk, and tinctures. Nothing is wasted. Even masses of stems once thrown away are now turned into liniment.

The authors describe how WAMM's fortunes changed in September 2002 when the federal Drug Enforcement Administration launched a raid, destroyed WAMM's garden, and arrested the Corrals. The act caused some to retreat from the group. But others found increased vulnerability only strengthened their resolve.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 49, Page B14  

Copyright 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

 letter to the editor


15 August 2008

To the Editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education,

I was delighted by the generous consideration "Dying to Get High: 

marijuana as medicine" received in the August 15th issue of the Chronicle

(Nota Bene:  "Wine wars on page and screen; and a book on

a medical-marijuana collective").    

There was one error, however, that I feel I should correct.

Nina Ayoub correctly notes that I make no claim to value-neutrality in
my scholarship but she incorrectly states that I "admit to no tokes or
even a contact high."   On the contrary.   In the introduction, I offer, as
contrasting examples, my relationship to prostitution and cannabis (the
subjects of my last two books).  I do this in order to argue against
direct experience as the most salient divide between good research and
bad:  "The fact that I wasn't a prostitute when I decided to write about
prostitution didn't really undermine my ability to think critically
about the practice and its meaning.  Neither can it be said that my
familiarity with marijuana as a recreational and as a medicinal drug
certifies my understanding of cannabis prohibition and consumption."

While taking "tokes" isn't the language I'd use, I am no stranger to
cannabis; among other things, I've lived part of each year in Amsterdam
where marijuana - whether used for pleasure or for its therapeutic properties -

is legal.


Furthermore, no one could be in the presence of the people that my co-author

Richard J. Webb and I interviewed for our book -- people living with life-threatening
illnesses, creating community and taking on the U.S. federal government -- and not

receive a "contact high."  Their courage is contagious.

Wendy Chapkis
Professor of Sociology and Women & Gender Studies

University of Southern Maine