Deedee Kirkwood has been smoking pot for 50 years. In all that time, she could've been busted — after all, California only legalized medical marijuana 21 years ago, and only in recent history have cops finally begun to leave some pot smokers alone.
"It could have been me, that's the subtitle for the 'potlifers,'" Kirkwood tells L.A. Weekly. "I've done stuff in my life like any one of them, but I was lucky. They were not."
The 68-year-old L.A. native is a throwback to the old days of marijuana activism, when wearing cannabis on your sleeve wasn't so trendy and the pot leaf symbolized defiance of authority rather than deference to the Green Rush. It was a time when the late Jack Herer (the namesake for the popular sativa strain) was still around to come by Kirkwood's for dinner. Back then, the cannabis community was a fraction of the size it is now.
But while Kirkwood's activism in L.A. may seem a bit old-school, she remains provocative in other parts of the country that aren't as progressive as California's marijuana law reform. Kirkwood's main focus these days is writing letters to "potlifers" — lifelong prison inmates who've been thrown behind bars on marijuana charges alone.
She's written to dozens of them over the years, and she is consistent penpals with a couple of them. She doesn't just exchange notes with the lifers; she also fundraises for them, whether to pay attorneys' fees or help buy them basic goods for life in prison, like new sneakers, for instance, or postage stamps and phone calls home. She raises the money through her Pot Fairy project, where she makes aprons to sell online and at a dispensary in Ojai called Sespe Creek Collective.
"I'm doing this to bring awareness to these forgotten and unknown prisoners who are in for pot and who no one even knows about," Kirkwood explains. "My goal is to come up with any way I can to affect these 'potlifers.' They're prisoners, dealing with people who are rapists, child molesters, murderers, and they see them come and go while they stay [in prison] with this stigma around pot."
One of Kirkwood's more regular potlifer penpals, Michael Thompson, was given a 40- to 60-year sentence after he was caught selling three pounds of bud to the manager of a car muffler shop in Flint, Michigan. He's now 66 and has been locked up in Michigan's Muskegon Correctional Facility for 22 years and counting. When the cops busted him, they searched his house and found three guns — two were antiques, the other belonged to his wife. Even though he wasn't armed when he made the weed sale, he was still convicted, on top of the pot charges, for being in possession of a firearm since he'd formerly been busted for coke back in the 1980s.
Before he was put away, Thompson worked as a music promoter with stars such as Aretha Franklin. He'd been lauded by the NAACP and the City of Flint for helping to forge a truce between local street gangs. In 1984, he marched among hundreds of activists to the Flint waterfront, demanding jobs and opportunities for youngsters facing the prospects of gang life.
Thompson did a lot for his community. He was a nonviolent drug offender who, if he lived in California, would already have had his case reduced or thrown out by now thanks to Proposition 64.
Another one of Kirkwood's penpals, Michael Pelletier, has been behind bars in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the past decade, sentenced to life without parole, for importing and distributing marijuana. The 60-something potlifer, paralyzed from the waist down due to a trailer accident as a child, hardly has enough money for an attorney. "Having a lifetime sentence is a feeling of dying every day," he wrote to Kirkwood. "It's worse than death that happens one time. It's a living death."
He took the rap for his co-defendants, Kirkwood says, praising his high level of integrity. Now he paints portraits in prison to pass the time. In addition to selling her aprons, Kirkwood aims to sell Pelletier's paintings to help raise money for a lawyer.
"They're so appreciative," she says of the potlifers. "It's unbelievable what they say [in their letters], the kindest things like, 'Thank you so much for not forgetting me, my family just left me.' It's just heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time."
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Though she discovered her passion for activism later in life, Kirkwood says it's her calling. She'd spent the majority of her life as a homemaker, raising her two kids. "I'm just a privileged Jewish white girl and this is where I've landed," she says. She began letter-writing after completing the 2012 production of her screenplay Toke, a true "coming out green" story about soccer mom Weedee, who works up the courage to admit she smokes pot, while facing issues pertaining to women, veterans benefits and sex. She then connected to an activist group called the Human Solution International, and began penpal relations with potlifers. Then she split off and continued to write the letters on her own.
She says she just wants to do something "out of the ordinary" to make a difference, she says. "I'm just trying to make a buzz because they're stuck with no way out. When I tell people I work with potlifers, they go, 'Oh come on, it's legal,' and it's not. Having cannabis be Schedule I — until that changes, everything else can tumble," Kirkwood says. "I think if everyone knows about these brothers and sisters who are in for life for marijuana, it can create a movement that can get them out."