Green Convictions

March 31, 2010

Theo Douglas, The 420 Times

You never forget your first time — that is, your first arrest on charges connected to your use of, or support of, medical cannabis. In fact, if law enforcement ever decides it wants to throw cold water on the burgeoning medical cannabis activism movement, its minions might consider calling a halt to the systematic harassment, intimidation, and needless arrest of hundreds of innocent medical cannabis patients every year. It's difficult to say how well this novel strategy would work -- not that we're in much danger of it being pursued. But one thing is certain: in interviews with The 420 Times, medical cannabis activists say emphatically that their first arrests on medical cannabis-related charges were usually life-altering events -- ones which, with the application of handcuffs, forever changed them from patients to activists.

Some day, history books may call this "unintended consequences." Now, it's more along the lines of humble beginnings.

"I was on a school vacation and I was in Las Vegas," says Kandice Hawes, 28, founder and president of OCNorml, whose arrest seven years ago -- when she was just 21 -- turned her from a mild-mannered college student into a dedicated activist.

"I was in jail for two days. Everybody in jail was like 'What are you doing in here, sweetheart?'" says Hawes, now 28, who initially faced felony possession charges that were reduced to misdemeanor charges after she agreed to enroll in a state-sponsored drug class. (Even though, of course, she wasn't a drug abuser.) Hawes' college also cancelled her financial aid as a result of the arrest.

"When I got out of jail, I was pissed off, and I was like 'I'm not going to let them get away with it,'" Hawes remembers. "The cops just wanted to scare me. I wanted to be a lawyer and they were telling me I couldn't take the Bar exam because I had a felony in [Nevada]. They probably knew it would get knocked down to a misdemeanor."

Today, Hawes is completing her Associate in Arts degree in Political Science at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. And as head of OCNorml, one point of light in the statewide Norml activism network, she's able to help patients just like herself who are in their own legal straits. Some go on to become activists in their own right, by joining her at Norml.

"I got involved because I met somebody, but then getting involved with OCNorml was through her," fellow OCNorml activist, mom and medical cannabis patient Tracie Neria says of Hawes. "You have to be willing to stand up for what you say, and believe in it. And for the right reasons. I think that's important."

"I got in trouble because of my daughter," says Neria, whose daughter, then age six, unwittingly told school administrators that her mother used medical cannabis -- triggering a long, drawn-out, though eventually successful custody battle.

"I had to learn how to defend myself," says Neria, who is otherwise sober, and uses medical cannabis for depression. "That's how you get involved, like 'This stuff is really going on!' You realize this isn't right, and you need to stand up for yourself and other people." Other activists agree.

"From my experience being an activist for more than 20 years now, it's the law enforcement and the jail and the court experience that tends to radicalize individuals, patients or otherwise," says Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "And I think that if that's the experience of many patients -- even though they deserve protection under the law -- that's going to impact their lives and push in them in a way that forces them to make a stand. Not everybody's going to take a placard and go out and protest, or call their local government representative, but it's certainly a motivating factor." Indeed.

"My first trip to Washington, D.C., I didn't go to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, but I did tour the local jail," says activist Bill Britt, head of the Association of Patient Advocates, who was briefly a guest of the state when arrested for protesting in our nation's capital six years ago with Americans for Safe Access.

"As I sat in that jail cell, I thought about the other civil rights people, the Vietnam War -- some of these other same people who sat in this cell. I was kind of proud to realize this was part of a major social movement that's not just going to happen on its own," says Britt, 50. "It's going to take a concerted effort from everyone." His own response?

"I started going to court for these people because for somebody with a mental or physical disability, it's devastating," Britt says. "I gave them my number and I said 'If you hear of anybody getting a ticket for a gram -- as much as a seed -- I want you to call me.'"

Reaching out to experienced activists like Britt is one way to become an activist yourself -- but in reality, the basic steps toward activism are even simpler. Current activists suggest educating yourself on existing medical cannabis legislation; resources are available on the Internet and at public libraries. Don't be afraid to ask questions -- and be prepared to donate some time, whether it's to your favorite advocacy group, or just to attend a meeting of your local city council.

"Find out what the political landscape is like in your community," Hermes suggests. "And also consider engaging in putting pressure on the federal government to adopt a sensible national policy on medical marijuana. If you're living in one of the 15 or so states that are considering medical marijuana laws, you can have a big impact on whether those laws are passed in other states. It's important that patients speak out while these laws are being deliberated."

"I would say for the first good amount of time, I sat back and listened to other people," Hawes says. "I read anything I could read before I put together my own opinions, so that I was sure I gave people the right information. To be a credible activist, you have to have the right information." And you need to be ready to use it.

"There's a need for people to speak at city council meetings," Britt says. "Whatever your skills are -- I didn't intend on being a court expert. I started out working with people with disabilities. And I have found out that I'm good speaking and I don't get flustered very much. The more skills you have, the more opportunities will open up to you. By volunteering, you build your skills."

In the midst of a recession, and with another exciting election season just eight months away, there's no time like the present to work on your skills.

"We're at a time when activists can claim victories and are, in effect, moving this issue forward," Hermes says. "I think before too long, we are bound to see a comprehensive federal policy addressing this issue, whether it's from pressure by activists across the country or whether it's states implementing enough medical marijuana laws that critical mass is reached, and the federal government has no choice but to adopt a national policy."

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