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Silicon Valley attorney protests arrests of medicinal marijuana delivery workers

By Dean Schaffer | 1 Nov 2010

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Lauren Vazquez, an attorney supporting medicinal marijuana dispensaries, protests in front of San Jose's Terraine Courthouse. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

“Are we having fun yet?” Lauren Vazquez asks a fellow protester with a smile.

Inside San Jose’s Terraine Courthouse, 22 suspects await their arraignment. Vazquez is across the street to run the protest she organized but also to make sure they don’t miss their court date, an especially important precaution given that all the suspects and protesters are here to defend medicinal marijuana. “Nobody’s gonna miss court—not on my watch!” she says, sporting black Aviator sunglasses and holding a sign that reads “Drop the Charges Now” over a green cross and two marijuana leaf drawings.

Vazquez is no stranger to events like this one, which mixes equal parts activism, publicity and politics, with a dash of pot smoking for some. As the Silicon Valley chapter director of the medicinal marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Vazquez has devoted most of her efforts recently to these 22 suspects—known among the protesters as “the Compassionate 22”—since they were arrested on Sept. 30 in operation “Up in Smoke.” According to Santa Clara Chief of Police Stephen D. Lodge, the bust targeted medicinal marijuana delivery services that the county believes have been operating illegally and engaging in felony-level drug offenses, including possession of marijuana and possession with the intent to sell.

Vazquez’s Oct. 14 protest aims to send a strong message to the contrary and stir up support for medicinal marijuana, especially as voters prepare to decide the fate of Proposition 19—which would legalize marijuana for recreational use—on Nov. 2.

With her characteristically frank humor, the 28-year-old Vazquez describes herself as a “stoner, activist, attorney, in that order.” The roots of all three date back to when she was 16, when she found a family friend  smoking pot on her back porch in Lancaster, Calif. It was the first time she had seen marijuana up close.

Vazquez says her mother explained that the man used marijuana medicinally to treat his AIDS symptoms. Coming from a family of recovering addicts, Vazquez describes her initial reaction as one of shock. “I didn’t know much about drugs except that they were bad,” she says. Intrigued, Vazquez began reading books like “Drug Crazy” by Mike Gray and delving into the social roots and implications of modern drug policy.

“We have laws that claim to be here to protect us but actually end up harming us,” she says. “Jail didn’t help my family get sober. Prison is not a drug-free place.”

Intrigued by what she read, Vazquez developed a vision of alternative drug policies, a system that would place drug abuse in the realm of public health, rather than crime. She advocates “funding treatment and education to keep people from getting into substance abuse in the first place. But we also need to provide a way for adults who want to use drugs responsibly to do so safely,” she says, “in a way that’s regulated by the FDA or the state.” Above all, however, she wants a system that would treat addicts with humanity and compassion. “Drug addicts are down there with the child molesters. It’s OK to blame everything on them and call them junkies,” she says. “I’m an ambassador to the wider social justice movement to get them to see why drug policy is a social justice issue.”

Protesters urged Santa Clara County to drop charges against 22 medicinal marijuana delivery workers arrested in a Sept. 30 sting. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

While policy drives her activism, Vazquez draws her real motivation from the people that policies affect. “Nobody is standing up for drug users and demanding that they have rights and that their human dignity be respected,” she says. “That was really the thing that first spurred me to get out my marker and make a protest sign.”

Vazquez entered the world of activism as an undergrad at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she revived the campus’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) chapter through attention-grabbing events like the Isla Vista Joint-Rolling Contest, according to former NORML chapter coordinator Kris Krane. In addition to being an activist, she obtained a medicinal marijuana referral at age 23 to treat her migraines, nausea and insomnia.

After graduating from UCSB, she studied at Santa Clara University School of Law under professor Gerald Uelmen, who has taught a course on drug law there for about 40 years. Uelmen cites Vazquez’s firsthand experience as a crucial component of her perspective—like other medicinal marijuana patients, Vazquez worries about where and how to obtain her medicine legally, safely and conveniently. “I think she really relates to the struggles of people trying to get safe access,” Uelmen says.

For the past two years, Vazquez has worked for attorney James Anthony, who specializes in medicinal marijuana dispensary land use. In July 2009, Anthony gave Vazquez’s name to medicinal cannabis activists in Santa Clara who had started to form an ASA chapter there. Frustrated by what she viewed as old-fashioned drug policy, Vazquez agreed to help, and the chapter received its charter on Oct. 5, 2009. Vazquez became the chapter’s director, a position she still holds. Her boyfriend volunteers as the chapter’s treasurer.

In the past year, Vazquez has split her time fairly evenly between ASA activism and her legal work for Anthony. The lifestyle has naturally constrained her budget, but she doesn’t mind. “One of the reasons I went to law school was so I could afford to work part time and spend the rest of my time working on community organizing and volunteer efforts,” she says. “My hobby is protesting.”

As chapter director, Vazquez says she mostly hoped to “educate and teach people about their rights.” Recent raids like “Up in Smoke,” however, have brought dispensaries to the forefront of the local political stage, and ASA has focused on responding to recent arrests with protests like the one at the Terraine Courthouse. Vazquez herself has never been arrested.

Clinton Cronin, who operates the Northern California Natural Collective, is thankful for Vazquez’s knowledge, for the opportunity “to an attorney’s brain,” as he says. “Having her around is comforting. We know she can’t take bullets for us, but she’s supportive as a peer. A good leader.”

Vazquez set up protest signs in preparation for a press conference at the protest rally. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

Within the local medicinal marijuana community, that’s exactly what Vazquez has become. “Lauren has done so much to help this group,” says Butch Carroll, operator of Central Coast Cannabis Delivery. “She’s truly an angel.” Daniel Hovland, operator of the Med-Ex dispensary and communication chair of the Silicon Valley ASA chapter, describes her as “a huge pillar” for the chapter.

Vazquez’s real challenge has been fostering dialogue with and generating support from politicians outside of the medicinal community. She regularly attends city meetings throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties to offer comments on manners big and small, and Hovland says it’s working—“I’ve overheard some city staff members repeat her same key points almost verbatim,” he says.

But amid a statewide conversation about Prop. 19, Vazquez’s efforts have had mixed results with elected officials. When San Jose City Council Member Pierluigi Oliverio proposed a city tax on marijuana, for example, Vazquez and the ASA attended city meetings and requested that the tax be no higher than 3 percent. The resulting proposal—Measure U, which is on the Nov. 2 ballot —allows for a tax of up to 10 percent.

Oliverio remembers Vazquez’s advocacy but suggests that she did not influence his policy stance. “I’ve always had the same view,” he says, “which was a limited number of cannabis facilities in limited places, regulated, and some form of taxation. Did she influence me? No.”

“He just doesn’t give a damn,” Vazquez says.

San Jose Council Member Ash Kalra’s Chief of Staff, Joseph Okpaku, remembers an informal meeting with Vazquez a few months ago. “She was effective at getting her issues across as well as understanding the issues the city is facing,” he says, though this casual meeting was their only one. Other council members, like Nora Campos, have not met with the ASA or Vazquez personally.

Ultimately, Vazquez must tackle a tough task—fighting for political influence while also combating cultural stereotypes. “The tie-dye hippies have their place,” she says, but “I try hard to represent a professional image.”

At the end of the day, Vazquez does this because she loves it, whether she gets the ideal results or not. “I’m very serious about activism but try not to take it too seriously,” she says. “It’s a fight, and sometimes laughter gets you through.”

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