When somebody writes the book on how Orange County became the biggest battleground in the war on medical marijuana in California, there should be an entire chapter on just one person: Marla James. She may no longer lead the Orange County chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest national group advocating for the rights of medical-marijuana smokers–she left that position after refusing to increase membership dues–but James remains one of the most passionate and articulate agitators in the movement.
As with many activists, James came to the cause in an unfortunate way. In December 1999, she contracted flesh-eating bacteria; doctors cut out large sections of muscle and tissue in her abdomen. Things got even worse when James suffered a broken ankle; titanium screws in her leg led to an infection and, ultimately, its amputation. Previously, James had pursued a successful career as a paranormal investigator, which is how she met her husband of 25 years, David.
“I was part of the OC Society of Psychic Research, and he was a member of a Psychic Singles group, but we were both at this hippie shipwreck party through the Church of Religious Science because we were both friends of people through the choir,” James recalls. “It was love at first sight.”
Her career ended when she lost her mobility, but James says her biggest problem was the heavy regimen of painkillers she'd been prescribed. “I couldn't even think,” she says. “I had no life. I was seeing in gray tones. I couldn't read anything and couldn't write anything. I just sat in front of my computer and looked at pictures.”
James switched doctors, and with the help of medical marijuana, she kicked her OxyContin habit and became a full-time medical-marijuana advocate. She helped organize Orange County's Hemp Council, which grew into OC NORML, one of the most active chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in the country. “I couldn't be involved in paranormal investigations anymore, so I needed something to get involved with,” James says. “I needed something to be passionate about.”
It's difficult to think of any skirmish in the ongoing war over medical marijuana in which James hasn't played a role, either as a plaintiff in a lawsuit or as a member of a collective speaking to various city council meetings or being chased around in her wheelchair by DEA agents. Despite a rapid growth of dispensaries in recent years, Orange County cities–with the notable exception of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa–have made swift work of eradicating pot clubs, or at least pushing them underground. “Anaheim is creating a black market,” James laments. “Now the patients have to go to that sleazy hotel behind Disneyland to get their medications.”
Still, James insists her efforts to put medical marijuana in the mainstream of Orange County's political debate have been worthwhile. “We are the last group of people that can be discriminated against,” she argues. “We have won battles and lost battles, but overall, I think there is more understanding now.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).