PERHAPS THE SADDEST MOMENT of Ralph Nader’s sparsely populated press conference last Friday comes toward the end, after three of the five TV cameramen have already packed up and the few attending print and radio reporters begin staring out the eighth-floor window at the clear, rain-washed skies above Hollywood. Nader, without lifting his eyes from his notes or making any detectable effort to engage his audience, brings up the Bush administration’s failure to prepare the nation for a possible outbreak of bird flu.
“Who’s going to talk about that?” Nader asks, as journalists shoot sidelong smirks from folding chair to folding chair. “Who is going to raise that so that the other candidates will say this is a serious issue?”
No one, of course, but Nader. But, sadly, neither will anyone else be offering any serious critique of corporate control of American politics, at least not after primary season has ended and Sharpton and Kucinich have been quietly shoved off-camera. Nor should we expect the two leading candidates — who had to be shamed by Howard Dean into opposing the war and who voted for the Patriot Act and authorizing the invasion of Iraq — to articulate all that was and is wrong with Bush’s many-sided campaign against what he persists in calling “terror.” They certainly won’t suggest, as Nader did on Meet the Press, that the president should be impeached for deceiving the nation into war.
Nader’s goal, he says, is not to steal votes, but to lead “a second-front independent campaign . . . to retire George W. Bush as president” by saying all the things the Democrats are too fearful or compromised to say. He hopes to widen the terms of what has already become a treacherously narrow debate, preserving a little elbow room for that elusive and always inconvenient creature, democracy.
Those goals are so worthy and their messenger so clueless that the bird flu bit is not just embarrassing but painful — like watching doddering uncle Don get trounced by the windmills again. Nader’s ear for the zeitgeist could keep the world in tin another three election cycles. He’s stubbornly ignoring the prevailing political climate, the tattered left’s near-hysteric rush to pragmatism and abandonment of anything so impractical as principle. If the right barely thinks it worthwhile to mock him, liberals, including many of his 2000 supporters, are tripping over themselves to take a shot at Nader.
So Nader grips the podium with both hands and tells Democrats to “relax and rejoice” about his candidacy, or at least “quit whining.” Hunched slightly and rocking on his heels, he weathers the sneering questions.
“Do you actually have any desire to be president?” a reporter asks.
“Of course,” answers Nader, unfazed.
He doesn’t pretend this is fun for him. In over an hour of remarks, I only catch him smiling once, and then just barely, after quoting Emerson and musing, “Imagine that on Chris Matthews’ show — think we could get that across?” (Matthews recently suggested to Nader that he wasn’t qualified to be president, essentially because he doesn’t own a car.)
He doesn’t try to charm anyone and doesn’t hesitate to scold. Asked if he still believes there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, Nader snaps, “I didn’t say that. I can’t say how many times I’ve had to correct that. What I said was, there are few real differences between the two parties . . . Now with that predicate, I’ll answer your question.”
A thread of anger runs through his words. He chides reporters who “continue to quizzically question why there should be more voices, more choices, more parties in elections.” His anger is not of a petulant, road-ragey Howard Dean variety, but a depressed and exhausted, long-simmering bitterness, the frustration of a man who can’t believe he has to repeat himself one more time, who suffers under the naive faith that unvarnished facts should be enough to sway hearts. Nader’s is a cranky old American creed, dating further back than Emerson, that reason alone should be enough to prevail, that style is suspect, tact treacherous, compromise a living death.
A few minutes after the bird flu remark, when most people have stopped taking notes, a reporter asks Nader if he’ll yield to pressure and drop out of the race. “The time to drop out is when you don’t drop in,” Nader says. “Once you drop in, in my opinion, you go all the way.” And damn them if they can’t hear you.
An Rx Revolution
In Lake Forest, deepest Orange County, smack in the middle of a numbing expanse of gated, landscaped subdivisions and chain store–dotted shopping “plazas,” two improbable revolutionaries are practicing medicine in a nondescript, one-story, gray building. Nothing on the office door but the names Dr. Philip A. Denney and Dr. Robert E. Sullivan. When you’ve just set up shop as the only physicians for hundreds of miles who specialize in medical recommendations for marijuana use, you don’t want to court any more trouble than your mere existence already guarantees.
Inside are four equally plain-wrap rooms. Two patients wait for appointments, middle-aged white guys, dressed casually but well, clutching medical records. You could yawn with the ordinariness of it all, except that in the world of medical cannabis, nothing is ordinary. This work is simultaneously cutting-edge, radical, humanitarian and possibly professionally suicidal.
“I do it because morally it’s the right thing,” says Denney. He’s 55, a USC medical-school graduate, with silver hair and beard — slap 50 pounds around his middle and he’d make a credible Santa Claus. “Cannabis has been used medically for thousands of years. For 60 years, our government has been lying to us about it, and patients are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. It’s unconscionable.”
After years as a Northern California family practitioner and ER doc, Denney went into a cannabis-approval practice in 1999. “I was intrigued by the politics and science — mostly the science.” Cannabis, unpatented, easily grown, a people’s remedy if ever there was one, has been shown in studies to reduce eye pressure in glaucoma patients, lessen chemotherapy-induced nausea, improve appetite, relieve some multiple-sclerosis symptoms and ease pain. Nobody’s yet reported a death from overdose. Eventually, struck by the number of patients who were coming all the way from Southern California to see him, he recruited his former colleague, Sullivan, and headed south to set up a practice that he hopes to hand over eventually to a local doctor.
Patients seeking medical marijuana, says Denney, “come in every ethnicity, professionals, blue-collar workers. I’ve seen police officers. I had a judge sit in my chair.” The vast majority suffer from some kind of chronic pain, neurological problems including migraines, and gastrointestinal disorders that they’ve successfully treated with pot on their own for years. Then there are “the ones in chains and tattoos who say, ‘I need marijuana because . . . um . . . oh yeah, I can’t sleep.’” Denney sends them on their way.
It’s been almost eight years since California voters approved medical use of marijuana with a doctor’s approval. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that doctors had the right to advise sick patients of the benefits of pot; then the 9th Circuit ruled that medical users who grew their own couldn’t be prosecuted. But under federal law, marijuana use for any reason remains illegal — a Class I substance, just like heroin and crack. Patient-users are still being busted, and doctors are still coming under investigation by the California Medical Board. (Denney’s two Southern California predecessors were put out of business.)
Why has Denney stayed out of trouble?
“I practice good medicine,” he says. “I perform thorough exams. I review records and document my findings. Law enforcement, including the medical board, are like jackals. They go after the weak.” Still, there’s a surreal side to what he does. He can recommend that patients use cannabis, but not tell them where to get it. Some of his patients are longtime user-advocate-activists. Andy Kinnon, 41, who’s already spoken to several reporters, lays it out almost proudly: “I choose to use cannabis! — I smoke it, I eat it, I vaporize it.” But most are like the two men in the waiting room, who quietly take their turns, then scurry out without talking to anyone, including each other — upstanding workadaddies and soccer moms who know what works for them but whose kids get lectured in school on the evils of drugs, and who’re well aware of the stakes in going public. “They’re not interested in being radical,” says Denney. “They just want a piece of paper saying they’re not criminals.
“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Denney adds. “In a perfect world, patients would get medical cannabis approvals written by a family doctor, and I would be home in my garden, growing tomatoes.”
To my left is the Pot Prince of Bel Air, an unassuming toker who was busted in ’97 with 4,116 marijuana plants in his home on Stone Canyon Road. To his left is Rob Morrow, formerly Dr. Fleischman from Northern Exposure, now the star of Street Time, a Showtime series loosely based on the life of Richard Stratton, publisher and editor in chief of High Times and all-around badass. Stratton himself is here too, in town from Manhattan to celebrate the opening of his magazine’s West Coast office, located above Luna Park, the bar where a couple dozen cannabis connoisseurs are gathered for happy hour.
Stratton, who looks like a bulldog in designer clothing, is telling me about spending eight years in federal prison for smuggling pot and hash into the States. Prior to his ’83 incarceration, he’d built an international drug empire that afforded him whimsical jet-set trips to Paris, 4,000 acres in Texas, houses here and there, a date warehouse (one of his cover operations), and interludes at the Plaza Hotel replete with hookers and who knows what else. Before that, in ’74, partly as a reaction to the country’s post-Vietnam, anti-establishment sentiment, but mainly as a way to educate a relatively green populace about marijuana, he helped notorious counterculture figure Thomas King Forcade fire up High Times. Thirty years later, Stratton is back, this time at the helm. How’s that for living the American Dream?
Activists, writers, hangers-on mingle around us. Everyone seems to know each other. Lots of inside jokes — like the one about writer Rex Weiner’s personal physician, a German woman sitting idly by, whose relationship to Weiner is jokingly compared to Oscar Zeta Acosta’s (otherwise known as the Brown Buffalo) relationship to Hunter S. Thompson. Weiner, a High Times contributor from way back, has returned as a sort of West Coast liaison. He’s working the room, introducing people, handling public relations. Three people who aren’t here: Woody Harrelson, editor at large Annie Nocenti and recently appointed executive editor John Buffalo Mailer, who, despite looking strikingly similar to his legendary father, People magazine named one of the sexiest men of 2002.
“I knew John before he was born,” says Stratton. Indeed, Norman Mailer was Stratton’s roundabout business associate and neighbor on Cape Cod during his dealing days. Along with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mailer testified on behalf of Stratton when he was on trial.
Hiring Mailer’s son is brilliant marketing. And in May, when a revamped High Times hits newsstands, the hardcore grower ads that have dominated its pages over the last decade and a half, shifting the magazine’s focus from its “cultural, not agricultural” beginnings, will migrate to a spinoff publication, Grow America. All this in an effort to prove to Hollywood and potential tobacco and alcohol advertisers that High Times is about more than buds and bongs. Following in the tradition of enlisting talented, if not popular, writers, including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Paul Krassner, the May issue will feature an article on Arnold Schwarzenegger by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gary Webb.
Stratton is getting into detail about High Times’ recently formed film production arm, when a young, attractive woman, eyes glazed, sits down and starts pitching ideas for a column. She says she’s a lawyer and Harvard graduate. I sense our interview is over.
Later the party moves to Spider Club, a bar inside Avalon, with ridiculously high-priced drinks. The Hilton sisters make an appearance (surprise) as does a gang of droogs straight out of A Clockwork Orange. Autodidactic crime writer Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue from Reservoir Dogs) shares a booth with Stratton. Pot smoke, thinly cloaked by cigarette smoke, emanates from various corners of the room. Too bad the hosts forgot to provide munchies.