• U.S.

Here’s My Marijuana Card, Officer

4 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Arcata

It is not that Mel Brown, police chief of this tie-dye-and-tofu town, set out to flout federal law. But here he is, a 53-year-old father of two who has never inhaled, issuing laminated and embossed get-out-of-jail-free cards for partakers of the infamous Humboldt bud, a potent local variety of marijuana. “You can photograph me,” he tells a reporter genially, “but not reclining on a bearskin rug and smoking a joint.”

Arcata (pop. 16,000) lies in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, the three lush California counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity, 275 miles north of San Francisco as the spotted owl flies. In the ’80s, capitalist hippies defended their marijuana plantations here with booby traps and shotguns. George Bush sent in U.S. Army troops to battle the domestic druglords. And even now, early fall is signaled less by migrating geese than by helicopters swooping over redwood forests and dropping camouflaged, machete-wielding agents into any telltale patch of sparkling green. Last year state and local officials eradicated 136,957 plants, many 10 ft. tall, with a wholesale value of $450 million.

But what’s a conscientious cop to do when California voters pass a ballot measure legalizing the cultivation and possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes? And when all it takes to prove need is the approval, written or oral, of a friendly doctor? And when not just patients with AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis are clamoring for the drug but also people with backaches, stress and drinking problems? One arrested planter told sheriff’s deputies he was suffering from an ingrown toenail, an excuse that did not impress them. Lucy Mae Tuck, a volunteer who edits the newsletter at the Humboldt Cannabis Center, a co-op that grows the drug for medicinal use, has a physician’s certificate to treat her hot flashes with the weed. Since Prop. 215 passed more than two years ago, says Police Chief Brown, “everyone we try to arrest has a recommendation from Dr. Feelgood.”

Though six states–Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington–have voted to legalize medicinal marijuana, federal law still requires them to prosecute any wheelchair-bound granny smoking a bong. But they aren’t doing so, and that has federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey muttering about a new “Whiskey Rebellion,” the unsuccessful 1794 farmer’s revolt against federal liquor taxes.

In Arcata, however, where 74% of voters approved the state’s marijuana measure, Chief Brown considers his policy one of common sense. “Out of self-preservation,” he says, he set up his own system. Now about 100 local residents have sat for mug shots, agreed to let Brown talk to their physicians, and walked away with a “City of Arcata Proposition 215 Identification Card.” Flash it as you are toking up and you won’t be arrested, unless you’ve got more than 10 marijuana plants–a limit imposed to distinguish users from illegal dealers.

Other jurisdictions, including Mendocino County, plan to follow Arcata’s example, and a task force appointed by Bill Lockyer, California’s new attorney general, is looking at Arcata as a possible statewide model. Although other communities might be less mellow about the idea, no dissenters showed up at public hearings when Arcata’s city council–composed of two Green Party members, a Libertarian and two Democrats–approved Brown’s ID system. That’s to be expected, perhaps, in a town that has declared itself a “Nuclear Weapons Free Zone”; that in 1991 passed a resolution–albeit quickly rescinded–offering sanctuary to Persian Gulf War resisters; and where students from Humboldt State University hold an annual Hempfest, promoting a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis for use in clothing, paper and food.

“My Mexican-American aunties used marijuana poultices for their arthritis,” says Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas, a ponytailed electrician. Ornelas boasts of running marathon races while high on the weed but insists, “I don’t get stoned that much.”

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