Interview with Jean Hanamoto
What happens when you take medical marijuana, place it in sociological Mixmaster, and add a brilliant dash of daring art and ardent activism?
Simple. Beautiful creations of marijuana art, bursting from the creative womb of imagination and the everyday realities that combine to compose the artistic world of Jean Hanamoto and her husband, George.
In April 1998, George was able to get a recommendation from his doctor to use marijuana for his glaucoma, and he joined WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medicinal Marijuana), a patients’ co-op in Santa Cruz, California.
Her art has been inspired by all the wonderful, generous, kind, and concerned people in this group that are working together to grow and give away this potent herb as medicine.
I recently had the opportunity to interview this fantastic artist about her life, her husband, George, and the problems facing those in the medical marijuana community. She explained her love of life, her art, and the fact that on the front of medical marijuana use, the war isn’t over yet.
How powerful a tool is art com-bined with activism? Do you find that art and activism are a powerful weapon in the war to change peo-ple’s perception of the evil weed?
Jean: Very much so. My art has always cel-ebrated the beauty and grace of this fine herb, and people are surprised by my col-orful images. I’ve been entering marijuana portraits into various county fairs and shows over the last 13 years, and most were placed where everyday people saw marijuana as art for the first time. Fairs
and art shows in Gilroy, Morgan
Hill, Santa Cruz, San Jose, and now various venues in Mendocino County have
almost always taken the high road and displayed them without prejudice. Even
the California State Fair hung my piece “The Sink in WAMM’s Garden” prominently
in the main rotunda. I was allowed to have a framed statement next to it
explaining the WAMM philosophy (Wo/men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in
Santa Cruz) that treats patients like family, and had worked out a method to
exchange medicine for labor in the garden. Thousands of fairgoers read about
our success. Comments from view-ers were very positive.
How do you feel about the use of recreational marijua-na, in addition to the use of medical marijuana. Should it be legalized altogether?
Jean: My views have changed over the years, especially since coming from the cocoon of my experience with WAMM. I would like legalization to be seen as an opportunity to legitimize and sup-port small growers, allowing them to be some of the employ-
ers this country needs. I’m all for having an age restriction, and children need to be taught respect for use, but it’s outrageous that alcohol is legal and marijuana is not.
When my husband, George, and I joined WAMM in 1998, the founder, Valerie Corral, had strict rules in place. It wasn’t for nothing that it was called the gold standard of medical marijuana organizations. Medical marijuana was respected, and all the rules were followed. If anyone was caught selling, they were not given a second chance. Medicine was distributed free to our members, and most worked in the community garden to provide it. WAMM
believed in medical marijuana only, and had no tolerance for anything other than that narrow group. The patient was the point.
Moving north to Mendocino County five years ago changed my outlook, but it took some time. I had been WAMM-educated to believe strongly that to respect mar-ijuana, it must be used as medicine. Also, that no one should make money from growing it. That was a practical attitude in Santa Cruz in those days. We were trying to make it legitimate, and strict rules helped, but here in Mendocino many people depend on their small marijua-na crops to provide them with a living. They consider themselves farmers, and want to have as much right to grow their crop as the vintners in the same area. I have seen the light. This does not excuse the plunderers that grow on and ruin state and national parks, or other peo-ple’s property. Uncaring workers growing thousands of marijuana plants without love or respect for the herb or the earth makes me sad. Seeing corporations take over would give me much the same feeling. If I had my way, it would stay a boutique business. That quality advantage will always be with the small growers in the Emerald Triangle.
Do you find that there is an appreciation for your art outside of the marijuana camp? Has your art in some way fostered an appreciation for the medicinal uses of the herb by those who may have been on the fence?
Jean: I’ve had many opportunities
to talk seriously to indi-viduals and groups about medical marijuana. I know
from feedback that I’ve had a positive impact on countless non-smokers, many
that came to me through my art. City and county fairs are usually not a
showcase for outside-the-mainstream ideas, but I have been surprised by their
will-ingness to overlook the fact that my subject matter is mar-ijuana. Not
only have I been awarded a number of first-place ribbons over the years, but
most of the time my
work has been displayed on prominent, well-lighted walls. Not always, but almost. I find that Mendocino County is a little more sensitive about the impropriety of using cannabis in this way. It’s a different outlook than the bigger cities to the south, where art is defended above content. Here, they are more open about marijuana in many ways, and dependent on it to keep the county together financially, but horrified by it at the same time. Very schizophrenic.
Tell me more about the garden, how it started, and how it grew and involved others in the med-ical marijuana community.
Jean: When Valerie organized WAMM in the early ’90s, she was struggling with epilepsy and had discovered what a difference smoking marijuana made vs. the heavy drugs she was receiving from her doctor. She decided she want-ed to start a garden for herself and some friends, mostly ones dealing with AIDS at a time when there was very lit-tle help for them. The garden came first because she did not want to buy or sell what she considered medicine. With help from her husband, Mike, she and the other members raised their first crop. It was decided that after the harvest, WAMM would have regular meetings and distribute to each member their weekly share of the bounty. No one was charged, but they all made a prom-ise that either they or their caregivers were to help in the garden. We could only grow for a limited number of patients (350 at its peak, but sadly, places opened up reg-ularly). Donations were encouraged and appreciated. Having a long waiting list for membership made everyone grateful for what we had, and regular weekly meetings kept us informed about which of our family needed a phone call, a visit, a ride, or help in other areas of their lives. Our membership ran from business executives to the out-of-work and homeless.When we joined WAMM, the garden was so secret that only proven members were allowed on the property.
When we finally were given permission to see it, it was a revelation. We’d never seen such a beautiful garden, and George was there every week after that until he became garden coordinator. Then it was three to four times a week from Morgan Hill, an hour-long trip. He loved it and did it for our last three years in the area. He was there at 7:00AM to open the gate to our working members, deciding what needed doing and getting everyone doing what was needed. It was a peaceful, sacred place, even more so after several of our long-time members had their ashes scattered in that beautiful setting. The sunsets over the ocean were spectacular, adding glorious color to this gorgeous, bucolic scene.
George has always loved growing things, but nothing ever fascinated him like growing marijuana. When his family was moved back to California from the Topaz, Utah, internment camp after WWII, they were given housing and jobs share-cropping strawberries for Driscoll Farms. George spent his boyhood working in the fields, with time left for school, but not much else. Baseball was out of the ques-tion. Even so, farming is in his blood, and marijuana farming was most fulfilling. Not only could he spend quality time with equally hard-working and dedicated friends, he felt he was helping as many people as possi-ble. It’s a joy to watch these plants grow to maturity, to learn about how to make them better each year, to see patients at meetings and to know we’ve helped with their everyday lives and their pain. It’s a great reward. Belonging to a group with that much integrity was an honor.
Do you consider yourself a crusader, and how do you define your role as one?
Jean: Crusader? Hmmm. If crusading means putting my art
into what was considered entirely inappropriate ven-ues, or creating an art Web
site 13 years ago that was openly one of the few (or possibly the only one — I
searched!) displaying marijuana art by a marijuana artist, or just being
persistent in my calling without being intim-idated, then I guess it’s yes. I
feel so strongly about the medical part of the equation, and am so very fond of
the recreational part, that I can’t very well deny being an advocate. I want
people to see my work and know that there is more than one school of thought,
more than one prominent lifestyle out here in marijuana-land. I don’t deal with
gangs, or guns, or any kind of organized crime. I don’t grow on other people’s
property. I’m not out to make a million dollars. I don’t disturb my neighbors.
I just want to have my small garden and not have to worry
about evil-minded trespassers, or the law. I love the look, the smell, the taste of marijuana, and even the sticky feel. It’s a miraculous plant. This is reality for hundreds of thousands of smokers in the US, and we’re just overlooked because we’re no trouble at all.
Tell me more about George the Gardener Man and his garden projects. George has to be the guiding light in your art, and he must give it a foundation that drives you and gives you strength.
Jean: George has indeed been the light of my life for 25 years. Without his love, I would not have had the freedom to be the person I’ve become. We had a small repair shop when we were first married called George the TV Man, along with my business, Artworks Frame & Gallery, in the tiny town of San Martin (for an article, the local newspaper called us Magnavox and Magnolias, we were such an odd pair. I was painting flowers then). When we joined WAMM, he just naturally
became George the Gardener Man. When he was first diagnosed with glaucoma, George was the one who very much wanted to be legal, and we met Valerie when we came to Santa Cruz for their then-annual HempFest. She was a speaker that day, and we waited to talk to her afterward. She was so encouraging, and invited us to visit a WAMM meeting the next week, knowing we were enthusiastic and motivated. Our bond was immediate.
Being hired as garden coordinator for WAMM for the last three years before we moved was such a great pleasure for George. You would never know that he was close to 70 at that time. He worked as hard as anyone 40 years younger, and the work and marijuana kept him young. He loves to experiment with cross-pollination and growing methods, soil, and fertilizers, happy in his own cannabisian world. At 76, he should be able to be safe and secure. He should not have to worry about the law saying he is wrong in any way for using marijuana for his glaucoma, high blood pressure, arthritis pain, and appetite. With health care so expensive and pharmaceu-ticals that create so many side effects, the calming pain and nausea-reducing effects of marijuana would replace many more dangerous drugs. Think that’s a big reason why it’s still illegal?
I read too that you mentioned something about a DEA bust. Was this a personal bust?
Jean: That was the infamous DEA raid on the WAMM garden on Sept. 5, 2002. WAMM was well known and trusted by both the city and county of Santa Cruz, even listed in the Yellow Pages, which was unheard of then. We had their 100-percent approval and cooperation. WAMM was, after all, a group that was helping very sick and dying people in a totally nonprofit way. We were con-ducting research not done anywhere else in the US, filling out surveys every week for months to gather vital statistics for medical studies. We took care of our members’ needs over and above providing them with their weekly supply of medicine, with patients able to get help with services, housing, and personal necessities.
Neither city nor county law officials were informed before the DEA conducted the bust. The federal government knew the situation and went over the heads of the entire local government to prevent them from objecting. When George and I got there that morning after rushing from our home in Morgan Hill, they were already up the hill in the garden. We could hear the chainsaws destroying our life’s blood and imagined those booted feet trampling the fertile ground sprinkled with the ashes of our friends. The big gate at the bottom of the hill was closed, and a police-man was watching us, but we decided we would lock the gate behind them. When they came down with three big U-Hauls full of our precious harvest, we peacefully declined to take off the padlock, so they had to call the local sheriff’s dept. to rescue them from all the sick peo-ple. This is the same sheriff that they bypassed to get to us, so he was not too happy with them. He negotiated with us to get Valerie and Mike back from a holding cell in San Jose in exchange for letting the U-Hauls and black-glassed SUVs off of WAMM’s property. He refused to dis-perse any of the WAMM members, allowing us all to go up and inspect the damage. It was a crime scene. It was devastating. Our almost-ready-to-harvest year’s supply for over 300 members was nothing but a few broken stems. People were overcome with grief at the sight of the destruction. It was a crushing blow to George, and he sat there in the garden for a long time just mourning the loss.
They didn’t get everything. By the next week, we had arranged to distribute marijuana to our members on the steps of Santa Cruz City Hall. In front of a crowd of close to 1,000 people, including the mayor, the city council, and numerous news vans, we were able to give each member his or her weekly share out of our remaining stores. It made the national news plus the BBC. It gave us the opportunity to explain how we were conducting our-selves, and Valerie is always eloquent.
What do want your art to say to people? What is the one message you want to get across to others as a crusader and as an artist?
Jean: Don’t be afraid! For those
who use it and still feel bad because it’s always been that way, or for people
that don’t use it and only know what they hear about the money and violence,
there’s a very large other side. Marijuana is a beautiful, wildly useful herb
that has benefited human beings for thousands of years without harming anyone.
The most dangerous thing about it are laws that ban and punish and lie. This
will change. Don’t be afraid!
Spotlight on Jean Hanamoto
Any thoughts on your feelings toward how the federal government stands on medical marijuana?
Jean: If the federal government had any compassion or courage, it would take marijuana off Schedule I. Why do they still pretend that it has no medical value? Are they completely blind to the truth? Apparently. George and I have found Mendocino County to be a wonderful place to live, but because of a backlash to destructive growers in the parks and forests, the sheriff and police are not really on our side. They have a hard time realizing that smokers are not automatically bad guys. Federal law says it’s still felonious to have and grow marijuana, even if Californians vote to legalize it in November. It has to be handled at the federal level.
You obviously know a lot of people with serious illnesses, such as AIDS, cancer, MS, and what I have, extremely high blood pressure. You have shared the joys of their lives, but there must have been losses too of lives to those around you that made up your family. Does your art help elevate personal pain when you experience these losses? Is your art therapy for you as well as an artistic outlet?
Jean: As WAMM’s photographer/ historian/artist for seven years, I recorded all of our activities — from softball games and celebrations to hospitals and memorials. Too many memorials. WAMM taught us so much about dying. My photographic images were a record of the good times and bad, and I created albums and albums of memories that are WAMM’s forever. Sorrowful as it was to lose another friend, we always had a portrait of the joy-ful times to look back on. Lots of sweet summer days in the garden, and people shown at their finest and most generous. My art flourished because of my family at WAMM, and those days were some of the best in my life. Joining WAMM was a life-changing decision for George and me. We put every ounce of energy we had into sup-porting our patients and caregivers, and in spreading ideas about sharing without selling, and working togeth-er to make every day better for our family members. We were always lacking in funds, and that hasn’t changed. Trying to come up with ideas to pay for the hall rental and a tiny office was a group project. I designed many a T-shirt and organized some wonderful craft days for members to come in and use their artistic abilities to make something beautiful. Our garage sales and WAMMfest, the annual event that my wonderful husband started about eight years back, continue to this day. It’s a successful show of what medical marijuana is about, and this family-friendly event is meant to change minds and hearts.I love my job! I’ve always been adamant that art is free to be bold and ahead of its time. My art is legal everywhere, and I’ve fought to remind people that that’s the case. Don’t tell me no. I’m so stubborn! Hahaha!