Valerie Leveroni Corral surveys pot plants at one of WAMM Phytotherapies' gardens, in unincorporated Santa Cruz County.
Valerie Leveroni Corral surveys medical cannabis plants from all over the world at one of WAMM Phytotherapies’ gardens, cultivated at a former Boy Scout Camp in unincorporated Santa Cruz County.
(Evelyn Nieves/InsideClimate News)

The biggest threat to growing marijuana in California used to be the law. Now, it’s climate change

Having survived a DEA raid, a Santa Cruz resident, the co-founder of the first medicinal cannabis collective plots a comeback in the worst fire season in California history.

Valerie Leveroni Corral spent days after lightning set the Santa Cruz Mountains on fire not knowing if a cannabis crop her organization grows for the sick and dying had survived.

The one-acre crop sits on the site of a former Boy Scout campgrounds, off a rutted road so deep in the woods of unincorporated south Santa Cruz County that only fire could find it without a guide. In fact, the CZU Lightning Complex fire came close but skipped the woods, a lucky fluke.

The conflagration—part of the explosion of lightning-sparked wildfires in mid-August that kicked off the earliest, worst fire season in California history—blazed a devastating trail. It scorched 85,509 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and destroyed 1,490 structures, including 925 single family homes. Among them was the property Corral called home until three years ago, a farm that had become part of local history and lore.

In 1993, Corral was a co-founder, with her then husband, Mike Corral, of the nation’s first medicinal cannabis collective, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM). They grew marijuana organically in their backyard as medicine for WAMM members, people of all ages and walks of life who had incurable conditions and terminal illnesses.

Members received cannabis for free or in trade for working the garden. (Most donated their time, care and money). When federal Drug Enforcement Agency officials raided the farm and arrested the Corrals in 2002, an army of sick people rallied to defend them. So did Santa Cruz officials. They sued the DEA and the Department of Justice for raiding a respected community organization sanctioned by California’s 1996 landmark law legalizing medical marijuana, Proposition 215, which Valerie Corral helped draft. A Federal judge ordered the DEA to let WAMM be.

The Corrals divorced in 2018 and had to sell the property, a blow to the collective. The farm was a joyful gathering place. More than two dozen WAMM members had their cremated remains buried on the land. These days, everything is different.

California’s law legalizing recreational marijuana, Proposition 64, which went into effect in January 2018, did what the DEA could not: It dismantled the collective. When its landlord’s mortgage holder, Wells Fargo, refused to allow it to obtain a state license, WAMM lost its headquarters, where it had held weekly meetings and dispensed cannabis to members for 17 years. Corral said the bank didn’t want a cannabis business there because the drug remains illegal under Federal law.

The collective’s cannabis is now cultivated in collaboration with professional growers in two plots, 40 minutes away from each other, because the law restricts where cannabis can be grown and made available, and affordable land that meets the regulations is scarce. The collective rented an office in midtown Santa Cruz months ago, but it is still months away from opening, because it has not yet obtained all the necessary legal paperwork under the new law to be able to dispense cannabis products to its members.

At a time when surviving annihilation by wildfire passes for good fortune, the collective is thankful for its lucky break. The original farm would have been lost to the CZU Lightning Complex fire, but the two new plots are thriving.

On a rare day when smoky skies turned clear blue, Corral, a small, youthful 68-year-old with dark red, chin-length hair, visited the plot at the former Boy Scout camp, now owned by a WAMM board member.

Valerie Corral looks over plants growing for WAMM Phytotherapies in unincorporated Corralitos in south Santa Cruz County.
Valerie Corral looks over plants growing for WAMM Phytotherapies at a former Boy Scout camp in unincorporated Corralitos in south Santa Cruz County. The land is now co-owned by a WAMM board member.
(Evelyn Nieves / Inside Climate News)

WAMM has always farmed organically, paying attention to soil health long before climate change made healthy soil practices like composting and planting cover crops fundamental to environmentally-friendly land stewardship.The cannabis plants, thick and conical, looked like young Christmas trees. Corral, excited to see the healthy plot, began envisioning new ways the farm could grow.

“If all goes well,” she said, “We’re going to be a lot more hands on here. I’d like to hire the differently abled for the farm. We just have to get up and running again.”

Unintended consequences

Corral’s travails with Proposition 64, a law she opposed, has resonated with other growers—recreational and medicinal—across the state. Last year, the state’s Cannabis Advisory Committee warned Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators that the market was fraught with onerous rules, high taxes and local permitting issues.

Legalizing marijuana has not only stalled medicinal cannabis growers like Corral, whose collective includes cancer patients, it has also driven new and veteran growers underground, a trend with serious environmental repercussions.

Some have turned to indoor pot grows, operations that require enormous amounts of electricity for light fixtures, dehumifiders, heating and ventilation. Researchers estimate that indoor grow operations use about eight times the amount of energy per square-foot as do average commercial buildings. Other growers have gone deeper into forested areas than ever, cutting down trees to create plots that pose risks to humans and ecosystems.

By some estimates, at least 80 percent of the marijuana grown and sold in California is sold on the black market. In 2019, California sold $3.1 billion in legal cannabis, making it the largest market for legal cannabis in the world. It also sold an estimated $8.7 billion in unlicensed pot. Taxes from legal mariuana sales were supposed to stuff the state coffers with $1 billion a year. They have averaged less than half that amount.

In June, Newsom blamed the pandemic lockdowns for declining tax revenues (despite allowing marijuana dispensaries to remain open). His revised budget forecasts of $443 million from the state’s coffers this year and $435 million next year.

Not long before marijuana became legal, the biggest threat to growing cannabis outdoors was the law. Now it’s a constellation of climate change-fueled weather disasters: drought, record heat and fires so big they take weeks and thousands of firefighters to extinguish.

The August Complex in Northern California is the latest largest fire in state history Burning more than one million acres as of Oct. 5. It has threatened the fabled cannabis mecca known as the Emerald Triangle: three counties—Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity—with the largest concentration of marijuana farms in the country. In tiny towns shrouded by forests, pot growers have stared down evacuation orders as if they were bar room dares. Despite warnings that firefighters would not risk their lives for people who refused to leave when ordered, most growers, law enforcement officials said, stayed to defend their crops from fire and thieves.

Marijuana laws evolve, stigmas remain

In 2009, Corral watched in awe as firefighters defended the WAMM farm from a wildfire yards away. She did not consider the fire an augur of things to come. The challenges to medical marijuana were always about public perceptions. Until widespread research is allowed and the DEA removes mariuana from its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, “with no current medical treatment use” and “a high potential for abuse,” Corral accepts that millions of Americans consider it a dangerous street narcotic. When Proposition 64 passed, 75 percent of California’s cities banned cannabis dispensaries outright. Experience has taught Corral that powerful testimonies like her own are crucial to showing people that cannabis can be other than a stoner’s drug of choice.

“I still thank cannabis,” she said, “for basically saving my life.”

In 1973, Corral was involved in a freak car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury. Pharmaceuticals failed to control grand mal seizures despite many different drugs and doses. Corral turned to marijuana after her then husband read a research report that found it controlled seizures in mice.

To her profound surprise, it worked, reducing her seizures from many times a day to infrequent. Corral and her husband began growing cannabis and eventually giving it away to people suffering from AIDS and other serious diseases. That was the beginning of WAMM.

The medical establishment is divided on medicinal cannabis. The American Medical Association has lobbied for rescheduling marijuana to facilitate research but has stopped short of declaring cannabis beneficial, stating that the limited rigorous scientific studies are “insufficient to satisfy the current standards for a prescription drug product.”

The American Nurses Association, however, in 2016 issued a statement declaring its belief in the benefits of medical cannabis. Obviously WAMM members agree with the latter.

Corral is considering one of the leading experts on medical cannabis. Like Jane Goodall with her wild chimpanzees, Corral has become a leading expert on medicinal cannabis through years—decades—of observation and experience. She knows which strains and delivery methods (tinctures, oils, candies, baked goods) work for different ailments. She also knows when cannabis will not perform miracles. (“It’s not a panacea,” she said.)

WAMM members have ranged in age from babies—the youngest three-months-old—to people in their 90s. Their ailments have ranged from seizure disorders to glaucoma to every type of cancer and many disabilities. To hear WAMM members testify to the positive changes in their lives after becoming medical marljuana patients is eye-opening.

Everyone who works for WAMM has a story. Marina Bleich, who is helping to organize the new headquarters, found WAMM after searching for treatment for her daughter, who suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome, a rare, virulent form of epilepsy that manifested at 11 months.

Bleich’s daughter had endured tortuous hospitalizations and at least 19 different anti-seizure drugs. Nothing helped. Her daughter was having hundreds of seizures a month. When her daughter was three-years-old, a Santa Cruz doctor suggested she get in touch with Corral, saying he was unfamiliar with how to administer cannabis to pediatric patients.

“He called her up while I was in his office,” Bleich said, referring to Corral. “And Valerie said, ‘Bring her over.’ My daughter did have a seizure on the way. I carried her into Valerie’s office.”

Corral recommended a marijuana extract, a CBD oil for her daughter’s treatment. “Her seizure activity tremendously dropped,” Bleich said.

Now 10, her daughter has seizures about every 15 days, lasting only a minute or two in duration, Bleich said. It’s a far cry from the hundreds of seizures, lasting for 15 to 20 minutes, that she suffered as a baby.

Over the years, Bleich and Corral have experimented with different forms of cannabis to find what offers the best relief. On private Facebook groups for families of children with Dravet’s Syndrome, she said, she shares her experiences with cannabis with parents afraid to try it.

“I wish I had had the recommendation from the get go.,” Bleich said.

Before the pandemic, WAMM members had weekly get-togethers to discuss their lives—and often, impending deaths.

Corral now checks in with members by phone or by Zoom or in person. “The isolation is not healthy for our members,” she said.

The collective’s new, full name is WAMM Phytotherapies to reflect additional alternative health practices, like acupuncture, that the collective plans to offer.

Despite thte many challenges of the post-Covid world, Corral wants to expand “the WAMM model” to different communities. “They would develop their organization based on their community’s needs and interests, for whatever works for them,” she said. “There are a lot of ways we can help.”

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News, a partner of Lookout Santa Cruz.