Bongloads of Justice
How getting caught up in a federal drug raid turned Pasadena comic Tere Joyce into a marijuana missionary
By Joe Piasecki 04/19/2007
Tere Joyce finds humor in just about everything, but not this.
During a stop on her way home from a radio interview last week, the Pasadena comic and former star of the NBC reality show “Last Comic Standing” found herself at the wrong end of a rifle, caught up in a surprise Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in Woodland Hills.
“But I'm a comedian!” one witness recalled Joyce shouting as agents rushed in, telling everyone to put their hands up over their heads.
Joyce is not a medical marijuana user, but she does get high.
And she isn't just any performer, she's one half of “The Dope Show,” a pot culture variety show that started last year at the annex room of the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena and has sparked controversy in — of all places — hemp-friendly Portland, Ore.
In that city, two popular radio show hosts at a CBS affiliate have been blocked by station managers from participating in upcoming performances benefiting Oregon NORML (National Organization For Reform of Marijuana Laws) over concerns that the content is offensive. Now, with their jobs rumored to be on the line, these deejays have apparently begun denigrating the show and its performers on air.
But thanks to very real and unfunny happenings such as the raid last Wednesday on the West Valley Co-op on Ventura Boulevard, “The Dope Show” isn't just some goofy take-off from where Cheech and Chong left off, though that's part of the drill.
Along with the laughter comes a sincere plea for the audience to take the causes of medical cannabis use and marijuana de-criminalization seriously, said Jeff Peterson, who founded the show and partners with Joyce onstage.
Meanwhile, DEA agents have since August conducted more than a dozen raids on medical pot clinics operating under the state's 1996 voter-approved Compassionate Use Act, also known as Proposition 215. Agents have seized several thousand pounds of the drug, which unlike California, the federal government classifies as a Schedule 1 drug (like heroin, crack and meth) with no medicinal value.
“These establishments are nothing more than drug trafficking organizations bringing criminal activities to our neighborhoods and drugs near our children and schools,” said the DEA's Ralph W. Partridge, the acting special agent who led raids on 11 different Los Angeles-area dispensaries on the same day in January, according to a press release.
About all that he and Joyce, easily recognizable by her crazy hairstyles and quirky-eyed expressions, apparently have in common is a belief that a federal drug raid, even on people with a doctor's recommendation to use pot as medicine, is deadly serious business.
“I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack. For a second, I feared for my life. I was actually crying. I kept thinking, ‘What if a gun goes off? What if this is the end? … What if I pee my pants?'” Joyce recalled later that day during an interview at the Freddie's 35er bar in Old Pasadena, where she drank beer and smoked cigarettes to calm her nerves.
At the time, Joyce, who was handcuffed, questioned and detained by agents, really did have to use the bathroom, which she was later able to do, but not out of sight from a female agent.
“I was like, ‘Nice to meet you,'” she recalled of that uncomfortable ordeal.
No arrests were made last week at the West Valley Co-op, but significant amounts of currency, marijuana and products that contain marijuana were seized, said DEA Special Agent Sarah Pullen, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Field Division.
This is the second time this year that agents have served a search warrant on the West Valley Co-op. The first was during the January multi-location sweep of dispensaries in Hollywood, West Hollywood, Venice and the San Fernando Valley.
Because no charges have been filed in relation to any of those raids, all of these investigations remain ongoing, and the search warrants remain sealed in federal court.
Pullen said for that reason she was unable to give many details about those investigations or discuss why raids have occurred even twice in some places.
It also remains unknown whether each DEA raid of a medical marijuana dispensary is treated as a separate case or part of one vast effort to eliminate all such establishments in the Los Angeles County area.
Operation Broken Bong, maybe?
“That's the million-dollar question,” said Pullen with a chuckle. “I can't tell you that.”
When agents stormed into the West Valley Co-op this time, Joyce says she was not actually in the dispensary, but in a suite next door that houses Natural Care 4 Wellness, a doctor's office that offers medical marijuana recommendations.
She was there waiting for a ride from Jim Wilson, the business manager of that office, who had just picked up the car-less Joyce from an interview for National Lampoon Radio about “The Dope Show.”
Wilson said federal agents entered his office after dispensary patients and staff fled there during the raid.
“They were kicking doors down when the people who were there were saying, ‘You don't need to kick that door down, let me give you the key.' They were kicking the doors down just because they could, and they had their guns drawn,” recalled Wilson, who prevented agents from seizing medical records because they carried a warrant only for the dispensary, not the separate medical office.
Before her release, Joyce was forced to give up her address and the name of her parents and roommate, who she fears are now part of some federal database.
“They asked everyone, ‘Who knows the safe number?' I'm like, ‘Are you fucking high?' They're like, ‘You're lying.' We were guilty by association, and I really didn't know,” said Joyce.
Her experience on the hard end of a pot raid has cemented Joyce's transformation from a pot comic to a full-on pot activist. That's why, despite fear of arrest, she allowed herself to be photographed by the Weekly while smoking marijuana.
“There's no way this should be happening to people. The fact of the matter is everybody's getting stoned. It's become so prevalent that to some people, smoking a joint is the same thing as having a glass of wine,” she said. According to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, she may be right.
That organization's Web site reports that an estimated 97.5 million Americans ages 12 and older have used marijuana in their lifetimes, more than 40 percent of adults and teenagers.
Weed, pot, grass, bud, ganja — whatever you call it, the mystical herb is everywhere from Hollywood movies to popular music, but it's still dangerous to carry.
According to a 2004 Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, some 12.7 percent of state prisoners and 12.4 percent of federal prisoners were serving time for marijuana-related offenses.
“We joke about [state-issued] medical marijuana cards, but we genuinely believe that people who are in need of access to medicine should be able to get it,” said Peterson, who was sporting a traditional hippie or stoner look with long, Jesus-style hair and a tie-dye T-shirt.
“The thing that personally touches me about this issue, too, is that my mother died in my arms of colon cancer in 2002. And my mother was not a hippie by any means, but when she needed marijuana to help her with her chemotherapy, her nausea, lack of appetite — when my mom knew she was dying — she asked my two brothers and I, ‘Please, get me some marijuana so I can eat, so I don't feel nauseous after I go to chemotherapy.' And it worked,” he said.
“The munchies — we consider that to be a joke, but to somebody who can't eat it's an appetite that allows them to replenish their bodies,” added Peterson.
As the country finds itself in a health care affordability crisis, the issue of medical marijuana continues to grow in prominence, with conflicts between federal anti-drug law and state medical use allowances making headlines around the nation.
On its Web site, the marijuana reform group Americans for Safe Access lists more than two dozen pending cases between medical marijuana growers and users and the federal government.
But when it comes to the medical marijuana cause, perhaps no figure is better known than Angel Raich, an Oakland mother who suffers from a brain tumor and whose doctors believe medical marijuana is the only thing keeping her alive.
Raich has for years battled the federal government in court for the right to use marijuana under California's Proposition 215, but lost her most recent case in March, when federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson wrote: “For now, federal law is blind to the wisdom of a future day when the right to use medical marijuana to alleviate excruciating pain may be deemed fundamental.”
“And it's an aphrodisiac,” added Joyce with a playful wink, because activism aside, weed is an inherently funny and celebratory part of American culture.
“A lot of people don't even know they're stoners. If you smoke a joint every morning, in the shower, you're a stoner. Or, if you find yourself at a stop sign waiting for the light to turn green …” said Peterson.
Joyce — who once smoked marijuana with Tommy Chong, which is “like shoplifting with Wynona Ryder,” said Peterson — believes “The Dope Show” is not just about entertainment.
“Comics have the gift of communication. They can make social change in many ways,” she said. And just as the word “dope” has multiple meanings, “There's an informal meaning of the word that's ‘righteous knowledge; the truth.'”
Not all in the entertainment business are receptive to thinking of pot-smokers as anything more than cheap comic foils, however.
For pressuring Marconi Show personalities “Big” Jim Willig and Kristine Levine to beg off performing in “The Dope Show,” KUFO-FM and its masters at CBS landed the dishonor of being named “Rogue of the Week” in the local alternative newspaper, Willamette Week.
To make a long and twisted story short, while publicity from that scandal may have actually helped Joyce and Peterson book larger venues for the show, it came along with a lot of hurt feelings and negative attention as members of the local entertainment community chose to side with or against “The Dope Show.”
“When you start addressing the political issues that surround marijuana, I think that's why people are getting so upset. They don't want to look at you like you have something to say that has a point. It's a moral issue, a legal issue, a social issue, and when you're really saying something, they're like, ‘No. You're supposed to be the dumb clown,'” said Joyce.
“We're marijuana missionaries,” said Peterson. “It's worth fighting for. To all those others out there: Stop sitting on the fence. Stand up!”