Today, “equity” is a watchword in the cannabis legalization movement, as state and local governments try to craft models for an adult-use market designed to correct the social harms of prohibition and the War on Drugs. But this public consciousness is due to the work of many who pushed the issue long before doing so was entirely socially acceptable.
Sister Somayah Kambui, a veteran Black Panther turned cannabis advocate, was one of those who brought issues of racial justice to the forefront of the cannabis movement. And before her untimely death, she won a groundbreaking “jury nullification” victory, upholding her right to provide cannabis to treat sickle-cell anemia.
Sister Somayah, as she was ubiquitously known (she was born Renee Moore), used cannabis to treat sickle-cell anemia, under the terms of California’s Proposition 215 medical marijuana measure after its passage in 1996. But her vocal advocacy made her a target of the authorities — resulting in her unprecedented legal victory.
Sickle-cell anemia is a genetic blood anomaly that occurs in one in every 70,000 Americans, particularly those of African descent. It can cause debilitating pain, fatigue and swelling of the hands and feet. It took Kambui a while to figure out that cannabis was the most effective treatment for her.
Kambui was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, where she served several years during the Vietnam era. At VA and public hospitals, she was given morphine for her pain from the disease.
“I couldn’t do anything on the morph,” she told High Times reporter Peter Gorman. “And neither can a million other people. That’s why you see so many middle aged and older black folk sitting on stoops looking like junkies. They are junkies. They’re U.S. government junkies.”
After finding that cannabis helped, and after the passage of Prop 215, she founded the Crescent Alliance Self Help for Sickle Cell collective, or “buyers’ club.” With a doctor’s recommendation, she began cultivating in her South Los Angeles backyard.
But the police raided her garden in October 2001 and confiscated, by their estimate, 200 pounds of cannabis plants.
The LAPD brought in a helicopter for the raid, menacing the block of single-family homes.
“I was sitting having a cup of coffee with a little hemp oil when they broke down the door,” Kambui told the Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘I’m legal, I have a doctor’s note and I’m compliant with the law.'”
She said the officers told her she had too much for her personal use. “I said ‘OK, why don’t you take what you think I don’t need and leave me the rest?'” she recalled to the LA Times. “They took it all.”
She also disputed the police estimate of the haul. “That is 200 pounds wet, with dirt and stalks,” she said.
Kambui was arrested, spent 60 days in jail and was charged with multiple felonies including cultivation, sale and shipping marijuana out of state. Worse still, she was facing a life prison term under California’s “Three Strikes” law. Her two prior convictions, involving illegal firearms possession and explosives, stemmed from her work with the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. During her time as a legendary Panther, she was known as “Peaches,” and was a leader of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party, alongside Geronimo Pratt.
When she went before the judge at Los Angeles County Court in January 2002, Kambui said the cannabis was not for her use alone, but was to be shared with some dozen sickle-cell sufferers in her club. “They’re all mine,” she said, taking full responsibility for all the uprooted plants. She also admitted shipping to sufferers who were too far away to come see her.
And she asserted that her advocacy had made her a target, noting that she’d been similarly raided in 1998 — although the charges were dropped after she spent two weeks in jail.
Making a medical necessity defense, Kambui spoke to the court of the long centuries of medicinal cannabis use in African traditional healing. Using her own idiosyncratic lingo, she referred to the African continent as “Nigretia,” and to her cannabis as “Nigretian Kif.”
The trial ended in an outcome that The Leaf Online website hailed as a “jury revolt or jury nullification,” in which a defendant is acquitted on moral or ethical grounds, in spite of uncontested evidence that she or he acted as charged. On March 18, 2002, Sister Somayah Kambui was found “not guilty” of all charges.
In addition to being a rare victory for the doctrine of nullification, Kambui’s legal battle also anticipated a change in California law. It was the following year that the “medical marijuana collective defense” was enshrined in the Medical Marijuana Program Act, the notorious Senate Bill 420.
Pushing Racial Justice in the Cannabis Community
By the time of her court case, Kambui was already a leading figure in Southern California’s cannabis activist scene. She was the key mover behind the first Los Angeles Global Marijuana March in 1999, and all the subsequent ones until her death. And she was particularly aggressive in calling out the cannabis community one what she saw as its internal racism — for instance, in failing to emphasize sickle-cell anemia in medical marijuana advocacy, and failing to make the link between prohibition and militarized policing of black and brown communities.
But she bridged a cultural divide in 1997, when she teamed up with B.E. Smith, a brazen and police-defying cannabis grower of white redneck roots in the backwoods of Northern California’s Trinity Alps. Smith became “designated caregiver” for Kambui, among a handful of other medical users around the state. Alas, she never got to use B.E.’s bud, as his cultivation site was raided by federal agents that harvest season—resulting in his own landmark legal battle. Smith died earlier this year.
Unfortunately, Kambui’s run-ins with the law were not over after her court victory. In October 2003, her garden was again raided — this time by the DEA. A dozen plants were uprooted, although no charges were filed.
California NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer decried the raid as a “mean-spirited, gratuitous attack on a seriously ill woman who has been judged guiltless by her peers under California law. Like other victims of DEA’s medical marijuana raids, Somayah was targeted because she was a vocal, legal patient activist who was a thorn in the side of the law enforcement establishment.”
Like many front-line activists who put a commitment to community ahead of personal gain, Kambui received little material reward for her efforts. When she died on Thanksgiving 2008, at the age of 57, the website Time4Hemp wrote that economic hard times likely contributed to her demise: “Many close to her believe she died of a broken heart based on lack of financial support. All those dispensaries in Los Angeles and not one would help her save her home from foreclosure.”
Twelve years after her passing, Sister Somayah Kambui reminds us of the need to preserve the memory of those who sacrificed for such freedom and consciousness as we have now achieved. And more poignantly, of the need to honor and support our freedom fighters while they still walk among us.
TELL US, what did you learn from Sister Somayah?