Photograph by Curtis Cartier
sticky situation: Valerie and Michael Corral were cut out of a land partner's will and stand to lose their home of 20 years--and WAMM's storied pot garden.
After 15 years of devotion to the medical marijuana movement in Santa Cruz, WAMM founders Michael and Valerie Corral face the loss of their land and the end of a dream.
By Jessica Lussenhop
On Friday, Oct. 10, one of the final days of the marijuana harvest in her garden, Valerie Leveroni Corral feels the first real chill of fall on the deck of the home she built in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Stepping around her geriatric dog Ebo and over a deaf cat lying supine in a pool of morning sunlight, she pulls a coat on over her tiny frame and gets into her old Volvo station wagon to drive the gravel road to the garden.
A few members of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, the collective Corral founded with her husband, Michael, are making the drive up through the cool redwood forest that envelops the house. Michael will be by shortly as well, despite the fact that he and Valerie separated two years ago. He is still a close friend and remains WAMM's marijuana cultivation expert.
On foot, the garden is about a 200-yard hike from the house on a dirt path through the redwoods. Inside a barrier of wire and fencing to protect against rooting pigs, deer and rabbits, a dozen marijuana plants grow in great bushy formations more than 6 feet high, sometimes drooping under the weight of the sticky buds. The plants' green and dusky purple leaves fill the air with a heady scent mixed with the muskiness of the desired product. In front of the Corrals, who've been growing marijuana since the '70s, the impulse is to act unimpressed, but the marijuana seems almost supernatural or mystical. It's more of a presence than a plant.
It's not obvious by looking at Valerie that she's sick, but she smokes pot about once a day to help control her epilepsy symptoms. At 56 years old, she has lines in her face from the wind and sun but moves with the impatience of a grade schooler. She stands just a bit over 5 feet under a long cascade of dyed red hair that contrasts sharply against the supersaturated greenery around her. She steps up to one of her plants and inhales deeply. "Oh, that smells so good," she says. "My favorite."
The WAMM volunteers arrive, a young couple, an older woman with breast cancer, another woman with AIDS and two dogs. They snap on pairs of black rubber gloves and begin popping the five-fingered leaves off the stem. But instead of bagging them like usual to be put through a long process of drying, filtering and blending to create a THC-spiked flour for baked goods, Michael tells them to let the leaves fall to the ground. "It has to do with the sale. We don't have time," he says. "If the sale of the property goes through, we won't be here."
Michael is in the middle of drafting a counteroffer for the land on which the garden and the house sit. After advertising on Craigslist and by word of mouth, they're in talks with a man who grew up nearby, on Last Chance Road, and whose ideas mesh well with the Corrals' hope that the wilderness surrounding their rustic home will remain largely untouched. "We hope that it will be monitored and loved and honored," says Valerie. "The big hope is that we wouldn't have to leave it. But that doesn't seem possible." If the counteroffer is accepted, they'll be off the deed by January.
Their land is a 106-acre parcel off Swanton Road north of Davenport that Valerie likes to say is shaped like the state of California. It scales a steep incline, the top of which offers a spectacular view of the ocean, the dramatic plunge of the tree-covered hillside and, on clear days, a view of Aņo Nuevo Island. It is generally accepted as truth that Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash owned the land before the Corrals, and on Google Maps, it's possible to see an aerial view of the marijuana.
Valerie loves the property fiercely, like it's a person. "It's been such a great gift to so many people, it's changed our lives incredibly," she says. "We want whoever comes here to serve the land in at least a fraction of the way it served so many humans, providing medicine and food and making their lives less painful."
But as of July this past summer, the land that the Corrals called their home for over 20 years is slipping away. Because of a perfect storm of factors--plummeting donations to WAMM, the DEA raid of the property in 2002, death and taxes--Valerie can no longer afford to stay in her home, and WAMM is losing its iconic garden. "I'm exhausted," says Valerie. "I'm losing my land, the place I thought that I'd be buried."
Though the situation is complex, Ben Rice, an attorney who has represented the Corrals for the last 15 years, blames the situation solely on the federal government. Without the DEA's continual assault on California law, medical marijuana organizations would not be raided, would not spend their savings on legal defense and would not lose precious donations due to spooked members. "WAMM is sort of the soul of the medical marijuana community," says Rice. "This never would have happened if the feds had taken the time to look at what WAMM was about and who Mike and Val were.
"For them to lose this property--they've given everything they have to WAMM, and this is what they get for it. It's so, so sad."
Back to Nature
The land first came to the Corrals long before WAMM and the trouble with the feds. As a young couple in the late '70s and early '80s, they lived off the grid near the summit on 35 acres they cultivated themselves. "We were so buff in those days," says Valerie. "I used to say we lived in a shoebox and bathed in a teacup."
When they befriended Alexander Peter Willoughby Leith, a wealthy Englishman who'd moved to the area looking to create a Tibetan Buddhist retreat, he was impressed with the Corrals' talent for land management. "He wanted to live rurally, but he had no knowledge of how to do that," says Michael. "He asked us to sell our property and go in with him on this piece of property we're at now."
That meant that after an up-front sum the rest of the Corrals' 20 percent of the land would be paid for in labor--building roads, turning expanses of 7-foot-high weeds into garden and generally making it livable. In exchange they could live rent-free, enjoying the fresh food they grew themselves, spectacular views, the privacy and the experience of living intimately with Mother Nature.
"We view it as sanctuary," says Michael.
"Do we ever," says Valerie quietly.
"The idea was that Val and I would just be able to live here until we died," says Michael.
Though the Buddhists never ended up having a strong presence on the property, WAMM carved its identity out of it as the early '90s brought medical marijuana to the forefront of the Corrals' lives.
Originally, the couple grew five marijuana plants in the small garden in front of their house for Valerie's epilepsy. In 1992, the plants were spotted in a helicopter flyover, and the ramshackle house built from reclaimed structures that fell during the 1989 earthquake was raided by sheriff's deputies.
It was not the first time they'd been questioned by law enforcement, but it was the first time their explanation--that the plants were medicinal--fell on deaf ears. Reagan's zero tolerance policy had trickled down and local cops, even in laissez-faire Santa Cruz, were no longer willing to turn a blind eye.
The fact that Valerie's trial occurred just before Santa Cruz residents were to vote on Measure A, the Marijuana for Medical Use Initiative, thrust the Corrals into the media spotlight, with Valerie as medical marijuana poster child. After the measure, which encourages local officials to do everything in their power to help make marijuana available to patients, passed by 77 percent of voters, District Attorney Art Danner decided to drop the charges against Corral. The publicity brought ailing patients out of the woodwork; they read about the Corrals in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and found them in the phone book.
The first was Tony Degnan, who at only 35 years old was dying of colon cancer. "Tony was so ill. His parents had no idea who to call; they called one of his friends and the friend freaked out," says Valerie. "He was like, 'Oh, my god, Tony's parents are calling me about pot!'"
At first, they divvied up the two-year supply the Corrals usually grew for Valerie free of charge. But as the calls flooded in, they eventually decided to also donate their time and expertise and began growing additional plants.
"Every year after '92 or '93, the garden grew out of necessity," says Michael. They began growing the marijuana in the larger garden among their tomatoes, squash and corn, but it didn't take long for the pot to take precedent, from five plants to 16, and then to 40, and up and up.
The WAMM collective was officially born as an incorporated nonprofit in 1996, the same year that Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, passed. The cannabis indica and sativa, strains from Afghanistan and Malawi respectively, were carefully dried, processed and distributed for free to WAMM members who smoked the herb for a variety of ailments--chemo sickness, glaucoma, chronic pain, AIDS. As the number of members grew to 250 people, so did the garden, until it was a lush forest of 200 plants standing shoulder to shoulder, enjoying the moist ocean air that blows up the mountain.
Fridays from 10:30am to 2:30pm at WAMM headquarters on Almar Street are joint-rolling days. Ten middle-aged members have gathered around a long table in the back room under the "Wall of WAMM," a collection of photos of all the 191 members who have died. The men and women are patiently assembling near-uniform joints with cigarette rollers, ZigZag rolling papers and a little spit. They chop the marijuana up with scissors and chatter loudly. They are both patients and caregivers, some of whom have their wheelchairs pulled up to the table.
"This is therapy," says Diana Poppay, talking loudly over the others, who then mm-hmm in agreement. "We forget about our little this and little that."
"Have you guys had smoke yet?" asks Valerie, coming in to the room. "Have you taken a break?"
The voices in the room rise as one roller stops and lights up a joint at the head of the table. The rolling club has the air of a revival church, praising WAMM and praising marijuana. The members sprinkle three-quarters of a gram into the rolling paper, twist it around inside the roller and pop out joints the size of cigarettes, which are packaged in bags of seven--one for each day of the week. The rollers usually produce about 250 joints in one Friday session.
"I have some good news, everybody," says Valerie, struggling to get everyone's attention. "We found out we have a little more medicine than we thought. We thought we were going to run out."
After carefully counting out all the incoming donations of marijuana, it turns out that at the close of the growing season, the WAMM members will have enough pot to make it through the winter. WAMM, like the Corrals, hovers in a near-constant state of uncertainty, with only enough financing to predict on a month-to-month basis how much longer it can maintain its operations, so the news is a huge relief. With the pared-down garden, it was essential that the members grow for themselves and donate back to the collective for WAMM to function as it has for 12 years.
"These are all donations," says Valerie, pulling zip bags of bud out of a paper sack. "This member gave back more than half of what she grew."
Earlier in the growing season, Valerie decided to run a little social experiment. "I asked WAMM members, 'Hey, guys, you want to come up and help me with the garden?' They said, 'Well, is there pot?' And I said no. You know, just to see," she says. "And they said, 'Nahhh.' And I went ... 'OK.'"
There is real disappointment in her eyes when Valerie tells this story. If the land is lost, she will no longer be providing the bulk of the pot. She says she fibbed to the members in order to encourage them to grow for themselves and the collective, but also, it seems, out of insecurity over the true generous spirit of the WAMM members. After 15 years dedicatedly growing for others--some estimates say she and Michael have given away about $20 million worth of marijuana--Valerie has reason to be looking for some reassurance. It's not enough to distribute marijuana to the ailing poor; Valerie desperately wants WAMM to be a community. But without the garden, without joint-rolling Fridays and fall harvest, Valerie is trying to figure out what her place is and how much time she can continue to dedicate to WAMM. "I'm tired and I take care of my friends when they're dying and I'm ill," she says. "Facing the loss of this land, I need to know, What should I do in the future? What kind of investment should I make?"
The Big Bust
In the life of the WAMM garden there are two eras: before and after the DEA raid.
It's not hard to imagine the way things looked to DEA agents six years ago as they drove quietly up the road to the Corrals' place in the dark--the winding lane through the trees makes the place seem clandestine and the people who would choose to live there guilty by association. So when Valerie and Michael were awakened early on Sept. 5, 2002, by 30 agents in full gear who'd come to arrest them and ravage the pot garden's crop, it was not a shock, but it did change WAMM and the garden for good. The agents chopped down 167 plants that morning, stripping the garden to a skeleton of arbors and deer netting.
What happened next became a part of Santa Cruz lore. The city banded together with the Corrals and WAMM in a show of support for the club, Prop. 215 and the local ordinances that permit the use and growth of medical marijuana. On Sept. 17, 2002, the mayor, the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors and former Santa Cruz mayors gathered at City Hall with WAMM to publicly distribute medical marijuana in an act that would come to define Santa Cruz quirk. "Making medical marijuana available is an act of common sense and compassion. ... I'm standing with the Corrals," wrote Mayor Christopher Krohn in an Op-Ed in The New York Times.
"That's the tenor of this community," says Valerie with pride. "The government needs to cross out Santa Cruz on their list."
In 2003, Valerie pursued a lawsuit naming former Attorney General John Ashcroft and John B. Brown III, the former administrator of the DEA, as defendants, and was joined by six WAMM members, WAMM itself and both the city and county of Santa Cruz as plaintiffs. Although no charges against the Corrals were ever filed, the lawsuit could have major implications for the future of medical marijuana,
"We think this was an attempt to improperly hijack our state's right to make laws like this," says attorney Rice, who is representing the county. "There are so many good people in the community and supporters in the medical community and in our local government--what's happening to WAMM is a terrible, sad situation, but it's not going to mean that medical marijuana is not going to be as viable here as before."
While impending court decisions could buoy the medical marijuana cause, in Valerie's case, she is in essence fighting to grow in a garden that in a matter of months may not be hers anymore. She will continue to fight, but that fight will change when the Corral name is taken off the deed.
Michael Corral has already moved off the land. He left it and his 30-year marriage to Valerie two years ago, though they have not divorced. Michael, an athletic man who shaves his head bald, his structured good looks punctuated by the two dark slashes of his eyebrows, moved in with roommates in a house outside of the Santa Cruz Gardens in the Aptos hills. It's where he does much of his prepping as an expert witness for the defense in marijuana cases. Though the house has a garden and a bevy of potted plants, it's definitely city living compared to the land.
Michael is a pithy man who watches what he says very carefully, so he'll only admit that the departure from the land was "difficult." But the differences between him and Valerie make it so that his exodus will be much different from hers. Michael has been the pragmatist, Valerie the dreamer when it comes to dealing with the impending sale. It seems a typical position for Michael.
"The last year my father was alive, my mother and I took care of him, and he looked good. But I kept telling my mother, 'Mom, he can go at any time.' It kept her from going to that space where, 'Oh, everything is fine now.' When it really isn't," he explains. "And that's what I did with the land. I knew that we weren't going to be able to keep it." Valerie, on the other hand, has started buying lottery tickets for the first time in her life.
For Michael, the beginning of the end came when Peter Leith, whom the Corrals considered a partner, died in 2001. Zoning laws had proven prohibitive to his plans to build a Buddhist sanctuary, and the investors had become interested in a different piece of property in New York state. Nevertheless, the agreement stood between Leith and the Corrals that they would inherit an additional 20 percent of the 106-acre parcel upon his death, and be able to continue to stay on the property.
But as Leith was dying in his native England, his attorneys saw that to save the estate money they would have to dramatically trim the amount of things being left in the will--including the promise made to the Corrals. "It was a very creative estate plan at Mike and Valerie's expense," says Jane Becker, a tax attorney the Corrals retained when the IRS audited them for unclaimed income while living and working for Leith. "There was very little paper trail. They went on trust."
Within a short time after the death, Michael and Valerie discovered they'd been left a fraction of the joint interest, and that the heirs and Buddhist guru Sogyal Rinpoche's organization wanted to sell. The Corrals took out a loan that has sunk them close to $1 million in debt, and bought out the other owners in 2004. It was theirs, but this was not a happy acquisition for Michael. "We were just buying time," he says. "The amount of money we are making isn't enough for us to be able to pay off or even come close to paying off this loan."
Without the land and their deal with Leith, the life Michael had envisioned for himself had utterly changed, seemingly overnight.
"We had set up our lives so that we were all set. We didn't need to make a lot of money," says Michael. "So we both dropped out of the job markets and all of that has flown by us, so neither one of us are qualified for new jobs out there." The arrangement had essentially permitted them the time and energy to start WAMM; now that time off began to look like a liability.
Michael predicted they could hold on to the land for two years, making payments as best they could from the modest $2,500 monthly stipend they get from WAMM, but they've been able to stretch it out to 4 1/2 years. The IRS audit sucked another $100,000 out of their savings, and though the Corrals can still conceivably continue to make payments for another year and a half, Michael decided to put the land up for sale this past summer when he realized they were going to have to borrow more on their line of credit and start selling retirement assets. "We have no savings left. We're basically living month to month," he says.
In late October, Michael finally heard about his counteroffer. The buyer had decided to pass on the property, and the Corrals are back to square one. Michael decided to list the property with a real estate agent and Valerie decided to start renting Peter Leith's empty house. So while there's no longer an impending move-out date for Valerie, the future remains uncertain.
Leap of Faith
On Oct. 28, at Viking Hall, WAMM is holding its annual Halloween party and "day of the dead" celebration. Besides eating, drinking and dispensing each member's weekly allotment of marijuana, Valerie has filled her Volvo with good-sized, smooth rocks for the members to paint. There are 191 stones, one for each of the WAMM members who has died, and Valerie has a typed list for members to pick from. The mood, one of the members says, is much more solemn than most Halloween parties. The task is heavy, as is the timing of it--the stones are to be placed at the small graveyard Valerie created on the land, and there's no saying how much longer WAMM members will have access to it.
Michael calls the cemetery "boot hill" and Valerie calls it "the jumping-off point." Under the boughs of a 300-year-old oak tree, there's a collection of memorials and trinkets to 26 people, most of them WAMM members who have died and asked that their ashes be brought up to the land. There are some mason jars, half of a surf board, blanched from sun exposure, candles and prayer tiles, strewn somewhat haphazardly in the yellow grass since marauding pigs tore through it looking for mushrooms and roots.
In addition to both Valerie and Michael's fathers, the cemetery has become the final stop for the ashes of some important names. A portion of Dr. Timothy Leary's ashes are there, as are his ex-wife Rosemary Leary's, who lived and died in Aptos after coming out of hiding. Valerie says she purposely placed author Nina Graboi's ashes in between them, "to keep the peace." Peter Leith is buried with a small Buddhist shrine. Harold Allen, the second person to call the Corrals for help back in the '90s, is here. Michael Chelosky, who's named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is there, as is Lucy Garcia, a local artist whose 17-year-old daughter Shayna has become Valerie's adopted daughter. This is where Valerie had hoped to be buried. "They are my welcome guests here," says Valerie. "Maybe I'll drop my bones up at the oak tree with my friends. Who can say?"
As Valerie, dressed in a bee costume, flits around the room making sure everyone has what they need, someone is passing around a poster of a toddler picking at a wedgie, and all the members are signing it. The poster is a surprise for Valerie. "You know, because she's very picky-picky," says Jackie Russell, who's dressed as a marijuana fairy."We did it to make her feel better. The land has been a real upset," says her husband, Jared Russell. "It can feel like the whole world is crumbling."
If that world is truly crumbling, Valerie is not ready to fully accept it. It's not denial, exactly, but she has not really made plans about where she will go next. She still maintains hope that a rescuer, some millionaire, will drop out of the sky, pay the debts and keep WAMM running for years to come. She hopes this investor, or maybe the lottery, will allow her to stay on the land, continue to grow and, indeed, drop her bones at the jumping-off point. But she has begun to do small things: give things away, pack her hat collection and her grandma's crocheting that she keeps in the same room where the marijuana hangs from the rafters to dry.
In the meantime, she says she tries to remain in the present, enjoy her view, eat the grapes and the butternut squash she planted, smoke the pot she grew and feed the feral cats who wander in and out of her doors. "Will I be sad to leave it? Utterly. But we leave everything in this life," she says. "I sit with people and discuss with them and listen to them speak about losing everything, including their lives, and realize the magnitude of that is great.
"I would have to say this is a practice."
Send a letter to the editor about this story.