Redemption Song

Dave Herrick's strange odyssey through the U.S. war on drugs

"For the most part, that's exactly what marijuana did," said Herrick. "After smoking a joint, they were quiet. They'd sit there, or if they could get up, they would help prepare for the medevac. When the chopper came, they would help me load more seriously wounded grunts into the bird and ride back to the hospital without having to be restrained."

Herrick and his commanding officer "bucked horns for 20 minutes, and then he shut up," Herrick said.

Unfortunately, there were always more seriously wounded grunts to attend to, soldiers with injuries so grave they would die without immediate surgery. Marijuana was of little or no use to them. But there were exceptions even to this rule. One involved a soldier in Herrick's company who was hit by a "willy-peter," a white phosphorus round that continues burning after impact.

"His whole intestinal area, stomach, and parts of his pancreas and spleen were exposed," Herrick recalled. "I couldn't give him morphine because it was a stomach wound. But once I got him all bandaged up and was able to completely cover up his vital organs, he asked for a joint because he saw that one of the other wounded grunts was smoking one." The marijuana didn't save the grunt's life, according to Herrick, but it didn't kill him, either. "It was a miracle that he didn't die right there," he said. "But he made it; he survived the war."

It's laughable to consider law enforcement's contention that David Herrick is indistinguishable from "a street dealer." In fact, Herrick had no criminal record before 1996—the year Prop. 215 became law—when he was arrested in San Bernardino for marijuana possession. By 1970, his résumé already included military service and would go on to boast hospital work, animal rescues and a 15-year career as a cop.

After volunteering for service in Vietnam, Herrick worked at an Army hospital in Fort Meade, Maryland. There, he says, he worked at a secret wing of the hospital: Ward 2C, home to the Army's junkies and alcoholics.

Inside Ward 2C, Herrick learned the art of working with addicts. "It's the same thing we see in prisons today," Herrick argued. "People who are getting out of jail are still addicted, so the first thing they do when they leave prison is find their dealer. Then they're right back behind bars for violating parole. It's a revolving door."

After his honorable discharge, Herrick took a job as an inhalation therapist at Pomona Valley Community Hospital, studied emergency medicine at what was then Chapman College, and worked for Schaeffer Ambulance service. In 1975, he saw a help-wanted poster for an animal-control officer in Barstow. Herrick took the job.

Part of his duties required him to run supplies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's headquarters in San Bernardino to the Barstow Sheriff's station. After three years of faithful deliveries, the captain of the Barstow station suddenly asked Herrick if he had any desire to be a sheriff's deputy. Herrick said he wasn't really interested but agreed to do a few ride-alongs. He was soon a full-time deputy.

From 1978 to 1991, Herrick wore the badge and uniform of a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy, first at the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center, then at the county jail, and finally as a patrol deputy in Barstow and Victorville. But his 15-year career in law enforcement ended in a medical retirement when he was run over by his own car during a routine traffic stop. "As I was getting out of the car, it shifted from park into reverse, caught my leg, and pulled me under," Herrick explained. "It took out my disk and herniated it so bad that it was irreparable."

Thus began Herrick's painful, years-long metamorphosis into a medical-marijuana activist.

After surgery, Herrick spent three months in bed. "I took all the conventional medications—Vicodin, Percodan and codeine," Herrick said. "I was becoming chemically dependent on those pills. I had no desire to stop taking them. When I found myself eating Vicodin like M&Ms, I had to get out."

Herrick's neurologist told him that if it were legal to do so, he'd gladly write a different prescription—one for medical marijuana.

By this time, Herrick's career had taken a bizarre turn. Unable to work as a patrol deputy, Herrick accepted a friend's offer to work in a head shop in Hesperia. When his friend moved away, Herrick bought the business. His new job—and his bad back—exposed him to the growing movement of disabled and sick Californians collecting signatures for the state ballot initiative that would ultimately become Prop. 215.

"The cops harassed the piss out of me," Herrick remembered. "I started gathering petition signatures at the shop. I got to know guys at the Orange County Hemp Council, and that's where I met Marvin Chavez."

The rise and demise of the Orange County Cannabis Co-op began in November 1996, just days after the passage of Prop. 215, when Herrick and Chavez co-founded the organization. Their mission: to provide medical marijuana to the club's handful of members, all of whom had a doctor's note recommending cannabis. That ended in mere months, when Herrick and then Chavez were arrested for selling marijuana.

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