Mary Patton: My Career as a Champion for Cannabis
Mary Patton

Mary Patton: My Career as a Champion for Cannabis

[Ed. note: I met Mary Patton years ago, at Amoeba Records' grand opening party, when she was head of marketing there. She was — and is  one of the most down-to-earth and likable people I have ever met, but she also had  and has  a badass streak. When she speaks about things she's passionate about, she has the ability to make others passionate, too. She's been working behind the scenes for marijuana law reform for a long time, and when she left Amoeba to focus on it full-time, I just knew that she'd accomplish her goals, that the dream of decriminalization was within reach. Now that one battle has been won, there are more to come, and as the new Culture Editor at L.A. Weekly I hope to chronicle them with the same dedication that Patton has shown, fighting for the right to party and have access to all of cannabis' medicinal and environmental benefits. In celebration of 4/20, I asked Patton to reflect on her long career as an advocate and activist. Lina Lecaro]

It was somewhere between being interviewed by local media outlets and speaking on a panel at the International Cannabis Business Conference in Berlin last week that I heard the news from back in the U.S. that President Trump had struck a deal with Colorado's Sen. Cory Gardner to honor a state’s rights to regulate cannabis use without the threat of federal interference. While cannabis industry professionals from around the world heaved sighs of relief at the welcome news, I found myself pausing for a moment of quiet reflection, feeling a sense of profound accomplishment mixed with cautious optimism as I danced a little victory dance in my mind, recognizing how far we’ve come to restore cannabis freedom.

To some, the advancement of cannabis legalization may appear to be a natural progression, happening effortlessly with the changing attitudes of an ever-evolving society. But take it from this longtime activist and dedicated advocate of cannabis policy reform: This progress has been no small feat.

It’s hard to believe that we’re finally watching cannabis prohibition crumble after more than 80 years. It’s not lost on me what an honor and privilege it is to be alive to witness the sea change. My dear uncle Dan, the first medical marijuana patient I ever knew, was not so lucky. He met his end before he could see the end of the failed cannabis policy that made him a criminal.

As a child growing up in the ’70s, cannabis was everywhere. With two young parents who came of age in the ’60s, an uncle who used cannabis to treat his glaucoma and as an alternative to opioid drugs to manage the chronic pain resulting from a bad accident, and then–President Carter moving to decriminalize cannabis, the attitude, at least in my home, was that cannabis was really no big deal. But I distinctly remember the day I heard my uncle and stepfather discussing their disbelief and disappointment that the Reagan Administration had increased the penalties for cannabis possession. I heard my uncle say, “Can you believe you can get arrested for less than an ounce of marijuana now!?” It was then that the fear hit me, realizing my family could go to jail ... for a plant.

It was a confusing time for me as a child, trying to make sense of it all. The law said cannabis was forbidden, President Reagan said it was the most dangerous drug known to man, the schools filled our heads with “Just Say No” drug war propaganda, but at the very same time, I had an uncle who convinced me that he needed cannabis for medical reasons and a stepfather who served on the police reserves who would not only openly consume cannabis but also grew some plants and amassed such an impressive collection of pipes, bongs and other paraphernalia that our house easily could have been mistaken for a head shop. 

Mary Patton: My Career as a Champion for Cannabis
Courtesy Mary Patton

Looking back, I am grateful that my family told me the truth about the healing benefits of cannabis, explained that the greatest harms associated with cannabis are the penalties, not the plant, and did their best to help me understand their civil disobedience despite being otherwise responsible, law-abiding citizens. Like alcohol, tobacco, driving or sex, cannabis was treated as just another thing that kids weren’t allowed to do until they were older.

However, by the time I reached my teenage years, the idea of harm reduction had entered the picture and my dad said to me, “I know teenagers like to experiment, and I’m sure someday you’re going to want to try marijuana.  If that day comes, I just want you to know you can talk to me about it … and because I don’t want you to get arrested, or get a product that is unsafe or laced with something from a creepy drug dealer, please just get it from me.”  So while my parents did their best to discourage me from all delinquent behavior, they also had a progressive and mature attitude about what they considered to be normal teenage behavior. The rules were that I needed to be honest with them; as long as I continued to maintain my A average at school, they were reasonably tolerant.

That was all fine and dandy until that fateful day I accidentally left my purse in study hall.  Within about 20 minutes I was pulled from my French class and dragged down to the dean’s office to identify the purse.  After repeatedly refusing to dump my purse out on a desk, the dean brought in a police officer, who also ordered me to dump out my purse.  Again I refused, so the officer did it for me, plucking a tiny, empty pipe from the pile of my belongings, and though there was no cannabis in my possession, he slapped a pair of handcuffs on my wrists.  Without reading me my Miranda rights or telling me I’m being detained, he waited for the bells to ring in an attempt to shame me with the dreaded “perp walk” through the hallways for all the other students to see, and took me down to the station, where no charges were even filed. Though the elaborate police pageantry failed to humiliate me (in fact, I would say my street cred actually improved that day), the one thing that false arrest did was activate me.  Because I believed cannabis laws to be unjust, and because I felt my rights were violated in that moment, it was that day in 1988 that I vowed to do something about it.

To this day, I give credit to my high school and my hometown police for the life I have today. Though they didn’t intend for it to turn out this way, I’ll always be grateful to them for motivating my activism. Without that catalyst I may not have had that passion project of cannabis policy reform in which to channel my energy.  As a fired-up teen I wrote countless letters to legislators, joined NORML, volunteered for signature drives and read every book I could on the subject. When I went away to school in Seattle, I met a group of people who called themselves the Peace Heathens and joined their effort to organize what was then a little “free speech protestival” called Seattle Hempfest.  By 1994 this annual event grew so large, it would be the last one held without a permit; it continued year after year, drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees annually. 1994 was also the year I finished school and began working in media. With a professional career in media and entertainment quickly accelerating, I stopped consuming cannabis to ensure I could always pass a drug test.  Though my consumption ceased, my activism never did.

As my career in entertainment excelled, I would use every opportunity and resource I had available to me to recruit influential and high-profile people in entertainment to support the cause or attempt to get the truth about cannabis told in the media so that the message would continue to spread through popular culture. But it was in 2007, when loved ones in states without medical marijuana laws were struggling to find relief from cancer treatments or faced with losing custody of children for choosing cannabis over more dangerous substances, that I realized so much more was needed. I could no longer accept that the ridiculous laws around marijuana continued to break apart families, imprison the sick and dying, and destroy so many lives with overly harsh penalties, especially when it was once again hitting so close to home. It was then that I made the difficult decision to leave the dream job I'd held for six years, doing marketing and advertising for the world-famous Amoeba Music stores, in order to transition into cannabis policy reform on a full-time basis.

Mary Patton and Tommy Chong
Mary Patton and Tommy Chong
Courtesy Mary Patton

If you are willing to listen when you let your life speak, amazing things can happen. In just a little more than a decade since I switched from pursuing a career to pursuing a calling, I’ve had the opportunity to work for one of the top cannabis lobbying organizations on Capitol Hill and participate in the spread of sensible legislation, which has vastly increased safe access to patients and responsible adults across the United States as well as several countries around the world.  I’ve organized fundraisers at the Playboy Mansion, the homes of celebrity advocates, and any and every other place that would have me. I’ve worked on countless state campaigns and voter initiatives, and even joined a presidential campaign with a cannabis-friendly candidate. I’ve worked behind the scenes writing talking points for influencers, advocates, spokespeople and producers of major media news stories and documentaries on cannabis. I helped secure founding members for the industry’s first investment groups and trade associations, and assisted entrepreneurs with raising millions of dollars to start responsible, compliant cannabis businesses. I’ve been a consultant, adviser, mentor, product innovator and strategic visionary to some of the most successful businesses leading the way in the cannabis industry today, and enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that through this work, we have disempowered dangerous criminal cartels while creating thousands of legitimate jobs and generating many millions of dollars in tax revenues and donations, which have greatly benefited communities everywhere cannabis is legal. And because one of my greatest joys is participating in positive educational exchange, I attend community meetings and speak at conferences and other events around the world to share knowledge of best practices and everything i’ve learned along this journey,

It’s no secret that music and marijuana have always been great bedfellows, and I continue to join forces with the entertainment industry to spread the message of sensible cannabis policy and inspire truth. I’ve had the good fortune to work with artists like Damian Marley, who's doing great things with the sacred herb, with the launch of his Speak Life and Stony Hill brands, which have so far been released in limited quantities but will soon be available in fine dispensaries across California.  One of those dispensaries will be the latest retail experience from the people who brought you the Amoeba Music stores. The Hi Fidelity Cannabis Shop will soon open where Amoeba’s jazz room once stood on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. What a joy it was to come full circle by getting to work with my former employers once again, supporting their efforts to serve their community with a whole new kind of musical inspiration.

When I started as an activist, during the height of the drug war, people used to tell us how crazy we were to think that we’d ever legalize cannabis.  But just like Steve Jobs famously said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” So I wear that badge with pride. And as this movement celebrates another High Holiday on 4/20, I will honor all the crazy freedom fighters who came before me (and who continue to join our efforts every day) with a moment of silence and gratitude for all who were just crazy enough to believe it’s possible.

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