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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Lanny Swerdlow, tongue firmly in cheek, introduced himself thusly: “I’m gay, Jewish, an atheist, a liberal, in a mixed marriage to a Native American, left-handed and a tree-hugger.”

What else is there to know about this 73-year-old registered nurse? Quite a lot!

Swerdlow was born and raised in Los Angeles, the younger of two brothers. His father died at 32 when Swerdlow was only 2 years old.

“My ‘real’ dad was my mom’s second husband,” he says. “He was an accountant, somewhat distant, but a good dad and provider for our family. My mom lived a life of quiet desperation, pretty ignorant of the real world—but you have to remember that women in those days didn’t go very far. There were a lot of things she could and should have done that she never did. One of the lessons I got from that is: If I want to do something, I do it … even if it’s not always a good idea.” He laughs easily at himself.

Swerdlow had a choice of high schools to attend in Los Angeles. “I could go to Fairfax High, which was very white and Jewish, or L.A. High, which was very mixed.”

He picked the latter. “I wanted something different, and it opened my eyes to other cultures. … I was interested in theater arts; I wanted to go into that, because that’s what ‘homos’ did.” Instead, he got a degree in zoology and later studied fisheries’ biology.

Swerdlow surprised his family when he came out as gay. “They had come to visit me in Oregon, where I was working for the state Fish Commission, and were surprised to learn of my feelings. My mom cried; my dad was upset. They were my liberal parents! Then they said I wouldn’t be happy for the rest of my life. I told them I would go straight, but I couldn’t play that role. When I finally confronted them, they accepted me for who I am.”

Swerdlow got involved with the gay-liberation movement in Oregon. He started a newspaper, and the police-advisory board asked him to join and represent the groups with which he was involved.

“Every Friday and Saturday night, young people would congregate on a street corner, and the police had tried to do something about it for years,” Swerdlow says. “At one meeting, they asked me where else they could go. Six kids had come into my office to raise money to open a club, so I told them to find a place, and I’d help bankroll it. A Realtor friend found a place, but it was a disaster. I got seven kids to help me do the work, and they worked seven days a week for 10 to 12 hours a day. I gave them a 49 percent stake in the business.

“We opened an underage gay/lesbian nightclub which became well-known, but overnight, the problems began. The police started coming and busting kids for curfew violations, batting them around and dragging them off. I consulted a lawyer and sent a letter to the city attorney, who sent a letter to the police department. Then they just stationed two officers in front of the club, waiting for kids to come outside.

“I then went to the head of the police bureau and began to learn about how politics works. I told him we couldn’t run the club if he kept putting police in front of the club. He got on the phone, requested some budget information—and then we never saw police there again. I learned that just because something isn’t right, that doesn’t mean it will get fixed. I also learned that something can get done if you have something hanging over someone’s head, like the threat to take away budget money. My experience with the club taught me not to just trust the system.”

The nightclub, which was sold in 1997, included a mini-studio for making films. “We did Night Scene for local TV with a focus on gay issues, and another show called Outrageous, and then a show about cannabis common sense, to help push toward legalization. The kids did the shows, including learning how to do the technical stuff.”

Swerdlow’s parents lived in Palm Springs, so he and his husband, Victor Michel—his partner for more than 27 years—would often come down to visit them. Swerdlow’s mom had taken ill and needed help, so he and Michel came to the Coachella Valley and stayed; they now live in Whitewater.

“We like it there,” he says. “There’s no businesses, very little traffic, lots of places to hike, and it’s close to the middle of nowhere, but not too far from somewhere.”

His path toward becoming a nurse began when he got a call from the hospital about his dad.

“I realized he couldn’t take care of himself anymore, and I decided to become a medical tech, ultimately going to College of the Desert and graduating as a registered nurse in 2006,” he says.

Swerdlow became involved in Democratic Party politics, representing a Riverside County assembly district on the party’s state central committee. He serves on the San Gorgonio Memorial Healthcare District’s board of directors.

Swerdlow has been passionate about the legalization of marijuana for many years. As a nurse, he is cognizant of the medical benefits of marijuana use, and has specifically championed the need for the Veterans Administration to make it available, despite the federal government classifying it as a dangerous drug. He was instrumental in getting language into the state Democratic Party platform supporting legalization prior to the passage of Proposition 64. He also has an online radio program and leads the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, focused on the Inland Empire.

In 2012, Swerdlow started the Brownie Mary Democrats of California.

“I wanted to form the ‘Democratic Cannabis Club,’ but they didn’t want me to put that name on it, so I named it after the woman who was known for baking 600 brownies a day and delivering them to AIDS patients in San Francisco,” he says. “I want to get more involved in health-care issues, especially the need to ensure that everybody has coverage. And I’ll stay focused on cannabis. With thousands of people on alcohol or drugs, they can get off using cannabis. It doesn’t solve their problems, but it doesn’t have all the down sides, either. We need on-site use localities, and it should be as available as liquor.”

Lanny Swerdlow describes himself in a lot of different ways. I describe him as an effective activist.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

On March 15, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, while addressing a law enforcement conference in Richmond, Va., said: “I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use, but too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store, and I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.”

Yes, the attorney general of the United States just said marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.

This isn’t a question of being “unfashionable,” but of the AG being factually wrong about the effects of two very different drugs. While some cannabis industry and advocacy groups have forced a smile and tried to paint a green-tinted picture of states’ rights, Trump likes medical cannabis, it’ll all be OK, yadda yadda yadda, how can we not see a difficult future ahead for cannabis when America’s top cop is so glaringly ignorant in his crusade against it?

“With over 600,000 arrests a year, the only thing life-wrecking about marijuana is its prohibition,” said Erik Altieri, NORML’s executive director, in a statement the day of Sessions’ speech.

Sessions spoke with reporters after his speech in Richmond.

“I think medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much,” Sessions said, according to various media sources. “Dosages can be constructed in a way that might be beneficial, I acknowledge that, but if you smoke marijuana, for example, where you have no idea how much THC you’re getting, it’s probably not a good way to administer a medicinal amount. So forgive me if I’m a bit dubious about that.”

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, countered Sessions’ remarks in a statement issued the same day.

“Statements like these from the Attorney General are factually inaccurate,” Sherer said. “In January, the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering released a report that reviewed over 10,000 research articles, which states there is conclusive, moderate, and substantial evidence for benefits of cannabis in several conditions. Sessions needs to stop spreading unfounded, unscientific theories about medical marijuana and take the time to actually meet the millions of Americans that are benefitting from its use before making comments about it being over-hyped.”

President Trump said he was “100 percent” in favor of medical marijuana during the campaign. But White House press secretary Sean Spicer recently clarified that the president sees a “big difference” between medical and recreational use.

As we’ve seen in the days since the inauguration, things are moving fast on all fronts in the Trump era. Those wishing to preserve and even further legalization must not be reactionary in their activism. There is too much at stake to take a wait-and-see position.

One productive way to be proactive in the defense and progress of legalization is to participate in and support the organizations that have been fighting this battle for decades—and will be on the front lines in the coming years.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

norml.org

Keith Stroup was smoking with Ralph Nader’s legal team in 1970 when someone suggested he ask Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Foundation for a grant to fund his fledgling pro-pot organization. Hefner approved a grant of $5,000, and NORML was born. By the mid-1970s, Hef was donating $100,000 a year to NORML. It was this support that helped make NORML the premier pro-pot organization.

NORML now boasts 135 chapters and a network of more than 500 lawyers. With legalization becoming more of a reality, NORML has edited its mission to “move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable.”

Americans for Safe Access

www.safeaccessnow.org

The ASA is a medical marijuana advocacy group founded in 2002 by medi-pot patient Steph Sherer. The mission is “to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research.”

ASA is the largest national member-based organization of medical professionals, patients and scientists promoting medical use and research, with more than 100,000 active members in all 50 states.

Brownie Mary Democratic Club of Riverside County

www.browniemaryclub.org

If you’re looking for a way to get involved locally, stay informed on the latest developments, and meet like-minded individuals, check out the Brownie Mary Democratic Club of Riverside County. Founded by activist Lanny Swerdlow, it is believed to be the first political-party-affiliated cannabis advocacy group in California. It is named for Mary Jane Rathbun, who got the nickname “Brownie Mary” for illegally baking and distributing cannabis brownies to AIDS patients while volunteering at San Francisco General Hospital.

Meetings are held the first Saturday of every month at 11:30 a.m. at Crystal Fantasy, 268 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.

Marijuana Policy Project

mpp.org

Founded in 1995, the MPP deals with lobbying and ballot initiatives. The MPP PAC, founded in 2003, donates to key congressional candidates. The mission is to affect federal law, to allow states enact to their own marijuana policies without federal interference, and to regulate marijuana like alcohol nationwide. In terms of budget, members and staff, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest national organization working specifically on marijuana policy reform.

Drug Policy Alliance

www.drugpolicy.org

The DPA takes an active role in the legislative process, and its goals include rolling back the excessive laws of the War on Drugs, blocking harmful initiatives, and pushing for sensible drug-policy reforms.

Considering the mixed (or worse) signals we’re getting from the current administration, it is clear that the fight for legalization and acceptance is far from over. We must not rest on recent victories. We must remain vigilant, and we must let our representatives know that we support the legalization of cannabis. When the will of the people is ignored in favor of a self-righteous crusade with no base in science or democracy, we must resist. Joining, supporting, and participating in these organizations shows that we are unified—and that we are not going anywhere.

Published in Cannabis in the CV