Mayberry, on acid — that’s how Fairfax, California is described by one of the people swarming what passes for an office park in the small Marin County town, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Next door to a weathered building with a long, low-pitched roof (reminiscent of a Japanese Buddhist temple—or a Pizza Hut without the crown) is a Little League baseball diamond, which shares a parking lot with the office park’s anchor commercial tenants; a co-working space that calls itself a “business sanctuary,” a hot-tub complex with a clothing-optional sundeck and, underneath the roof, Lynette Shaw’s Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana — one of the first medical-marijuana dispensaries in the United States and the only legal cannabis outlet in Marin county.
MAMM, often just called “The Alliance,” is hosting its grand reopening today — a triumphant return after winning a federal court case that began in the late 1990s.
Before its closure in 2011, about 10 percent of the Fairfax townsfolk — roughly 800 people — were members. Today the dispensary’s small, rectangular sales floor sees many feet, but the young man and woman working the counter are doing only modest business.
Instead, most of the attention is focused on Shaw, a gregarious woman with a large pouf of reddish brown hair wearing a magenta and blue tie-dye dress and black boots with many zippers. Shaw is the self-styled “godmother to all the dispensaries,” and for better or worse, she is MAMM. So this is her homecoming party, which has the atmosphere of a Grateful Dead tour reunion combined with a small-town church picnic.
Men and women in their 60s wearing the Marin County uniform of Hawaiian shirts and open-toed sandals come and go, sharing stories with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A long-haired man in a psychedelic-style t-shirt (an advertisement for the local town fair) hands Shaw a brown manila envelope; an application to join the town Chamber of Commerce — “welcome home,” he says.
For Shaw, it’s definitely a homecoming.
“I never married, I never had children. I birthed this, instead,” Shaw says, her face disappearing into a massive, toothy smile. “This is my family. And they’re coming back.”
Shaw briefly sits behind a desk before being called to deal with an “agitated man” whose medical-marijuana recommendation has run out — he’ll leave quietly after being gifted some free weed under a loophole in California’s recreational marijuana law that Shaw recognized.
Deep Roots in Medical Cannabis
Shaw was and is a musician by trade — a singer, to be precise. As the story goes, she was asked to join the Blues Brothers by John Belushi shortly before his sudden death, and has had the nickname, “Bluesetta” tattooed in blue ink across the snuffbox of her wrist, ever since.
A self-described “dope dealer” through most of the 1980s and 1990s, Shaw was turned onto medical cannabis by Dennis Peron, a San Francisco-based safe access activist and one of the authors of Prop. 215, California’s first-in-the-nation medical cannabis law.
After working in Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, Shaw came here, first to open up a Prop. 215 campaign office under the same low-pitched roof, then — in the face of what she called an “epidemic of AIDS and breast cancer” — to follow his lead and start selling cannabis to sick people.
Shaw started selling cannabis here under the MAMM banner in the summer of 1996 — several months before the voter approval of 215. Never mind that state law hadn’t changed and marijuana was still illegal in every form. Never mind that the concept of a “dispensary” wouldn’t officially evolve until the early 2000s. And never mind that — in addition to Peron — activists in Santa Cruz were doing a similar thing, under a very similar name — the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, or WAMM — a few years prior to Shaw.
“I’m the godmother to all the dispensaries,” Shaw says, in between receiving a parade of well-wishers, directing visitors around the dispensary and fielding calls on her cell phone. “I’m the founding mother — I birthed the dispensary revolution.”
Shaw was the first dispensary to receive a permit; an official license to operate from the Town of Fairfax, with sign-off from the chief of police. But who exactly was first can depend on who you ask — and is a debate for another occasion.
What’s beyond dispute is that Shaw is one of a tiny handful of first-generation medical cannabis pioneers still in the business today, in the era of recreational marijuana legalization.
She is also partially responsible for the major legal precedent that’s keeping Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department away from the rest of the $7 billion American marijuana industry.
Shaw’s legal odyssey began in 1998, when Bill Clinton’s DOJ delivered injunctions to MAMM and five other “original” dispensaries ordering them to stop violating the Controlled Substances Act. Shaw ignored it, the ignored another “permanent” injunction in the George W. Bush era and kept selling cannabis here until 2011, when Barack Obama’s local U.S. attorney threatened Shaw’s landlord with a property forfeiture if the dispensary didn’t close.
At the time, Shaw hoped to reopen “in a month or two.” Instead, after her car was repossessed, her home foreclosed upon and federal agents were trailing her every move, she went into hiding.
“It was Armageddon,” she says. “We had these agents here for two years. My landlord lost all his tenants, except for the hot-tub place.”
She retreated to Los Angeles, where she became the “house pot seller” for “an after-hours sushi place.” It was there, she says, that she met “my old man down there — from the Wu-Tang clan.”
“ODB’s brother is my old man. The Wu-Tang Clan hid me out,” she says. “I go, ‘I’m on the lam from the feds,’ and he goes, ‘Who hasn’t been?’ So I got a bodyguard as big as a house and this big armored Jeep, to protect me, (courtesy of) the Clan.”
Shaw stayed in Southern California until 2014, when Congress passed a budget amendment prohibiting the DOJ from prosecuting medical-marijuana providers obeying state law. So Shaw came back north, sued to reopen and, in the fall of 2015, she won: The feds were powerless to shut her down, as long as she was following state and local rules.
In May, after Marin County supervisors rejected the applications from ten other would-be dispensary operators, Shaw — whose permit never officially lapsed — announced her return.
She still owes the IRS a fair sum of money — a “manageable” tax burden, negotiated down from millions of dollars — and, after spending most of the $100,000 of start-up capital she raised to get back in business, Shaw’s operating a “skeleton crew.”
But she’s back. She’s here.
“This is the first time in 20 years,” she says, “that I don’t have to go to court.”
TELL US, have you ever visited MAMM?