In Santa Cruz, nation’s oldest cannabis co-op still searching for new home
SANTA CRUZ >> It’s been seven months since the doors closed at the Wo/men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, a storied nonprofit that is often credited with being the nation’s oldest cannabis collective.
Founded in 1993, the cannabis collective counts hundreds of terminally and chronically ill patients among its members, according to director Valerie Corral — many of whom insist that cannabis-based treatments do a better job at managing their symptoms than pharmaceuticals. A majority are cancer patients, Corral said, but many others suffer from epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism and Crohn’s disease.
WAMM has been at the forefront of what’s become known as the “compassionate care” movement for decades. Corral coauthored Prop. 215, the 1996 law that legalized medical cannabis in California, and WAMM successfully sued the federal government after its garden was raided by the DEA in 2002. The collective was founded by Corral and her former husband after the couple discovered cannabis helped control Corral’s seizures.
WAMM’s cannabis and cannabis-infused offerings are given to members for free or on a donation basis. It’s operations are entirely funded by donations. But with WAMM closed, Corral said the low-income members have nowhere to turn. One member, Andy Carcello, told the Sentinel said he had to give up his cell phone to afford to pay for the cannabis that had been freely provided by WAMM. The disabled Santa Cruz resident said he uses cannabis to treat pain and inflammation after undergoing open heart surgery and a stroke.
“Valerie is doing her best here, but this has hurt a lot of people and I happen to be one of them,” Carcello said in an email.
“People are calling me every day,” Corral said. “Parents — people with cancers. Their cancers are returning. Their pain has increased. Seizure activity has increased.”
The city of Santa Cruz had approved the nonprofit collective as one of five licensed dispensaries in December — a requirement under California’s new recreational regulations. But on Jan. 1, WAMM was forced to close its doors after its landlord of 18 years was unwilling to sign a document required as part of the licensing, a new rule that some landlords see as exposing themselves to legal risk.
Since then, WAMM has been searching for a new home, and the going has not been easy for the philanthropy-minded organization that can’t afford the overhead of the area’s better-funded pot shops.
Corral said she is hopeful she may have found a promising site in midtown Santa Cruz. She is meeting with the property owners at the end of this week, but wouldn’t expect to reopen until December at the earliest.
To Corral, WAMM’s struggles are an example of what she views as a failure by state regulators to consider the severely ill patients who most depend on cannabis. While medical patients can avoid paying sales tax at the register, providers are required to pay a 15-percent state excise tax and varying local taxes on the market value of the cannabis they grow to give away.
“It’s really a shame because it discourages the very thing that is needed most, not only in this movement but in the nation and on the planet today,” she said. “It discourages the opportunity for philanthropy.”
Other medically-minded dispensaries, such as the nearby Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, have also been forced to get creative to find ways to continue supporting their members, military veterans who use the plant to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of gifting directly from its Soquel storefront as it had done in the past, the Veterans Alliance now hands out vouchers at monthly meetings at the downtown Veterans Memorial Building. The veterans can then head to the storefront and exchange the vouchers for cannabis — an extra step devised to comply with the new state laws.
Other so-called compassionate care dispensaries have been reportedly forced to close across the state and legislators have begun to take note.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has put forward a bill to exempt the compassionate care programs from the taxes. The bill, S.B. 829, cleared the state Senate in May and is now before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Corral has her qualms about the bill, but without it she said WAMM most likely wouldn’t be workable even once it finds a new location.
“This is a huge challenge right now,” Corral said. “There is no movement around compassionate access. There is no movement around the poor. There just isn’t.”