President or no president, medical marijuana shows up in Oakland

Pub date July 23, 2012
SectionPolitics Blog

So the President was late. Around the time the “Fire Melinda Haag” press conference (as it had been called in emails I’d received from the various cannabis advocacy groups) at downtown Oakland’s federally-threatened Oaksterdam University was starting, one attendee drily mentioned that Obama was reported to still be in Las Vegas.

“I mean, I know the private jets can get you places really quickly and all, but still.”

It didn’t matter — medical marijuana had assembled in Oakland, the world cannabis community was watching, and there was going to be a show of numbers, regardless of what Air Force One was doing or when the President’s scheduled appearance at the Fox Theater a block away would actually get going.

But first, the formal press conference at Oaksterdam. Grow lights warmed the pot plants on one side of the room as dispensary founders, politicians, and patients said their piece on stage. 

“Name the advantages of continuing the drug war,” said Oaksterdam University president Dale Sky Jones (OU founder Richard Lee on stage a few feet to her right.) “We continue the failed drug policy that targets young people of color.”

“This is simply not the right thing to do,” said Jim Gray, a retired Orange County superior court judge and former assistant US Attorney. “It will not result in less marijuana being sold or consumed in Oakland or anywhere else.” Later on, during the march that would take medical marijuana users on a lap around the Fox, some protesters were seen lofting signs with the ex-official’s name on it — he’s the Libertarian Party’s nomination for vice president. His crowd-pleasing efforts struck gold at Oaksterdam in the form of a quip. “I think going forward, the slogan should be ‘the hempire strikes back.”

Steve Deangelo, founder of Harborside Health Center, was adamant in his call for an immediate freeze on all enforcement actions until courts deemed them consistent with the Obama administration’s policy. Deangelo and the patients that depend on his dispensary have a lot to lose should their call go unheard: a recent letter sent to Harborside by US Attorney Melinda Haag ordered the collective’s closure based on the rationale that it is a “marijuana superstore.”

“If the US Attorneys can come after a dispensary like Harborside,” Deangelo told the assembled crowd, “No dispensary in this country is safe.” Commonly referred to as the best-known dispensary in the country, Deangelo’s dispensary and its staff were the subject of last year’s Discovery Channel reality series Weed Wars

Perhaps the most poignant voices from the day were those of the consumers who will be most affected by the loss of safe and accessible medical-grade marijuana. Yvonne Westbrook-White, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, credited cannabis with getting her out of the house that day and appealed to the President to keep his promise to leave state-legal dispensaries alone.

Jason David’s baby son has Dravet Syndrome, a rare disease with epilepsy-like symptoms. He told the crowd at Oaksterdam that a non-psychoactive cannabinoid tincture had made his boy go from acting like a zombie to being a bubbly kid that greets people at church and at home alike. His voice and hands trembled as he thought out loud about what he would do if Harborside went the way of so many other cannabis businesses in the Bay Area.

“What am, going to ask a drug dealer ‘do you have CBD?’ You’re going after the wrong drug.”

An hour later, feet from the massive Obama-as-cop “Dear Leader” design that members of Chalkupy had painstaking sketched out the same day, a crowd that police later estimated at 800 to 1000 people were ready to march for their cannabis rights. The route took us up Broadway, past the lines of Obama fans patiently waiting for their president to show, down 20th Avenue to San Pablo Avenue, and right back to Oakland’s City Hall.

Would things continue to go as peacefully through the President’s eventual visit? All signs pointed to yes when your Guardian journalist left around 4:30pm, but one protester put it rather succinctly. “Today’s not over yet,” he said.