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Marijuana legal, for the moment

By Associated Press
Published May 24, 2004

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - What do you do when you sue U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and win? Fifty-one-year-old Valerie Corral, a sinewy 5-foot tall great-granddaughter of Italian immigrants, throws back her head laughing, her hands reaching to the clouds, hips wiggling, feet stomping.

"It's my happy dance!" she says, throwing her arms around her husband Mike.

She has also planted an acre of marijuana.

The decision that lets the crop remain is just one round in a long legal battle.

Last month, a federal judge in San Jose issued a preliminary injunction banning the Justice Department, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, from interfering with the Corrals' pot garden, set above an ocean bluff near Davenport, about an hour south of San Francisco. The injunction gives the judge time to reconsider his earlier decision to allow the garden to be uprooted.

Still, the Corrals call the injunction a victory.

They share their harvest through the first legally recognized, nonprofit medical marijuana club in America, which they founded in 1993. The club has about 250 seriously ill members who have prescriptions from their doctors to use marijuana to alleviate their suffering, increase their appetites and control their seizures. The marijuana is free.

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear another case that could undo or affirm the Corrals' right to grow pot - granted by state and local regulations, but denied by federal law. A second case in federal court in San Francisco - in which other medicinal-use growers seek to reclaim seized marijuana - could also affect the couple.

The Justice Department refused comment.

For now, the Corrals are the only people in the United States growing marijuana backed by state law, a local ordinance and a federal judge's injunction. "This could be the moment of the beginning of the end of this insane war against the sick," said Bruce Mirken of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. "And while the DEA and the Justice Department characterize Valerie as a common drug dealer, all you have to do is spend two minutes with her to know that's a lie."

During the past three decades, while sharing marijuana with sick people, Corral has watched - and in many cases held - 140 friends, ranging in age from 7 to 96, as they died of cancer, AIDS and other illnesses.

"It is the greatest honor to be asked by a person who is dying to sit with them," she said.

Corral's compassion is grudgingly respected at the DEA's San Francisco office.

"I'm personally impressed with her desire to help deathly ill people," said spokesman Richard Meyer. "It's just that she makes it look like the way to help sick and dying people is to give them marijuana. And that's not the case.

Valerie Corral's path to becoming a medical marijuana advocate began 31 years ago, the day a serious car accident left her with brain damage, epilepsy, and a lifetime of staggering migraines. She took prescription drugs but still suffered convulsions, shaking and grand mal seizures.

Then one day, Mike handed her a medical journal article that showed marijuana controlled seizures in mice. Since then, for 30 years, Valerie Corral says she has maintained a steady level of marijuana in her system.

Her legal challenges began in 1992, when the local sheriff arrested her for growing five marijuana plants. With Mike, she challenged the law, using the defense of necessity. Prosecutors dismissed the case.

The Corrals helped draft California's landmark Compassionate Use Act, approved by voters in 1996, that allows patients with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana. Similar laws have passed in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. But the law did not provide complete protection from arrest.

While local authorities worked with the Corrals to protect them against theft and coordinate distribution, federal agents continued to assert that growing, using and distributing marijuana was illegal. The Corrals were never charged, but a 2002 raid on their farm prompted them to challenge the federal ban, aided by a team of attorneys including Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen and advocates at the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.

"Representing Valerie Corral, for me, is like representing Mother Teresa," said Uelmen, a constitutional law expert, calling her "one of the most compassionate people I've ever met."

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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