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Pebbles Trippet: The Activist With Her Own Legal ‘Standard’

PHOTO Brian Applegarth / The Cannabis Trail

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Pebbles Trippet: The Activist With Her Own Legal ‘Standard’

One longtime California cannabis activist actually has a legal standard named in her honor. Pebbles Trippet established in the state’s courts that the 1996 medical marijuana law implies a right to transport cannabis — a precedent-setting case.

There isn’t much clearer evidence of an activist’s impact than having a legal doctrine that expands civil rights and personal liberty named in your honor.

This is the claim to fame of the woman behind what a California court in 1997 designated as the “Trippet Standard.”

Sudi “Pebbles” Trippet was a lifelong activist even before her name was inscribed in the annals of California case law. As noted in a profile on the Emerald Triangle’s local news site Redheaded Blackbelt, Trippet grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and launched her activist career at the precocious age of 17, when she helped to de-segregate public restaurants and lunch counters with the local chapter of the NAACP. A few years later, she was at the very first national march on Washington D.C. to protest the war in Vietnam, with Students for a Democratic Society in April 1965. After some time in the San Francisco Bay Area, in 1970 she moved to Mendocino County as part of the back-to-the-land wave. In 1972, she joined the campaign for the California Marijuana Initiative — the state’s first legalization initiative, which won about a third of the vote.  

Years later, she would recall to “The Cannabis Trail,” an online oral history of the Emerald Triangle, her long years of “daily activism, against the war in Vietnam, against apartheid, against nuclear proliferation, against marijuana prohibition. Whatever the issue was, I was there to be a part of it.”

But the defining episode of her life began on Oct. 17, 1994, when a traffic stop by a local cop in the unincorporated community of Kensington, in the Berkeley Hills of Contra Costa County, turned up an estimated 2 pounds of cannabis.

Immortalized in Case Law

When Trippet went before the jury, she argued both a medical need defense, based on her use of cannabis to treat migraines, as well as a “religious necessity,” claiming protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The court didn’t buy it. She was convicted of possession and transporting of marijuana, and sentenced to six months. 

She of course appealed. And, as fate would have it, her case opened before California’s First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 1996 — just one day before the state’s voters approved Proposition 215, the historic medical marijuana initiative. 

This opened up a new avenue for her medical need defense. She now argued, first that Prop 215 applied to her case retroactively; and secondly that the medical defense it codified necessarily implies a right to transportation as well as possession of cannabis —so both charges should be thrown out. 

On Aug. 15, 1997, the appellate court issued a partial ruling in her favor. It agreed that Prop 215 should be applied retroactively, and that it includes an “implicit right” to transport cannabis. Rather than overturning her conviction, however, the First District remanded the case back to the trial court for further consideration in light of its findings. 

The First District decision included the following language: “The test should be whether the quantity transported and the method, timing and distance of the transportation are reasonably related to the patient’s current medical needs… Because there is a possibility (albeit remote) that appellant can establish that the two pounds of marijuana she was admittedly transporting at the time of her arrest (or at least all of it above 28.5 grams) met this test, the trial court should… determine this issue on remand.” (28.5 grams is the decriminalization threshold in California.) 

And thus the Trippet Standard was born. 

Trippet argued that because she typically smokes five “fatties” a day to treat her migraines, and the stash she was busted with was mostly leaf rather than bud, there was a good argument that the two pounds was indeed for her own medical needs. The lower court actually declined to re-hear the case, and the charges were dropped. Although Trippet had already served much of her sentence before the appeal, in the end it was a legal victory. The Trippet Standard has since been applied in several other cases across California. 

‘Trust the American People’

This was but one of many legal battles Trippet has waged over her right to cannabis — a reality she has emphasized in media interviews over the years.

“In the ’90s, I thought, am I going to have to be on trial for the rest of my life?” she recalled to the Ukiah Daily Journal in 2009, noting that she was arrested 10 times between 1990 and 2001. 

In December 2017, NBC aired the documentary “Bay Area Revelations: Cannabis Rush,” in which Trippet was interviewed by actor Peter Coyote. A transcript of the interview is on the website of the medical marijuana journal O’Shaughnessy’s.

“I was busted 10 times in 11 years in five counties,” Trippet told Coyote. “It was usually on the road driving late at night. My Sonoma County bust came in 1990. My Marin County bust in 1992. My Contra Costa bust in 1994, and also the Humboldt County bust and the Palo Alto bust.”

Noting that her most important legal victory came on appeal, Trippet added that, paradoxically, “to lose is a good thing… because if you lose, you have the opportunity to win higher for everybody. That’s where you set precedent.”

Trippet continues to live outside the Mendocino town of Albion, where she remains involved in two local organizations that she co-founded: The Medical Marijuana Patients Union and the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board. She is currently launching a Cannabis Elders Council, with an aim of keeping alive a community-rooted culture around the plant amid its commercialization by the industry. She’s also involved in the Cannabis Culture Museum, which will soon be opening in Willits, with a similar aim.

In a recent interview with the vlog Grow Sisters, Trippet summed up the democratic ethic behind her many legal fights: “My advice is to take it to trial, to trust the American people.        

TELL US, do you think cannabis is a medical necessity for you?

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