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LeBaron: Santa Rosa’s long strange cannabis trip

Tins of marijuana sit ready to be sealed in the packaging room at Mercy Wellness cannabis dispensary in Cotati, on Thursday, December 28, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

GAYE LEBARON, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threat to make a run at state-legalized marijuana looks to be the next layover on the long journey to commercial cannabis.

Some would say it’s just another pothole on the road to riches.

In a single lifetime, Americans have advanced — if you choose that term — from being horrified to grudgingly accepting to wildly enthusiastic about the legalization of cannabis.

On several levels it presents the puzzle of the century. Is it the new “wonder drug” for the North Coast economy? Or are we setting our course on the road to deprivation? Either way, you will want to “keep the history” as my late friend and co-conspirator Harvey Hansen liked to advise.

Reading early stories about the early days of the drug culture here is a lot like reading a translation of Dante’s Inferno, so archaic is the language.

Regarding marijuana, “joint” is the operative term, of course, but a somewhat startling series of eight stories in this newspaper in 1970 (titled: “Turn on — to Nothing!”) introduced uninitiated readers to new words, like “narcs” and “tokes” and “roach.”

Taking a lesson from the old-timers, who loved to tell wild tales of Prohibition, we learn that we have to tell the old stories, the ones that remind us of the road that has brought us to this point.

To apply an appropriate lyric: ”What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Some of these memories are oft told, like the late Lee Gleason’s account from his police department years in the 1940s and ’50s, working for the legendary Chief Dutch Flohr.

“I took a marijuana cigarette off a transient,” he told me in an interview in the ’80s, “and Dutch and I got to thinking about it so we took the seeds to Tony Campiglia at The Flower Shop … We asked him to grow us a couple of marijuana plants.

“When they were 5 or 6 inches high, I took them to a meeting of the Sonoma County Peace Officers Association and passed them around so the fellows would recognize marijuana when they saw it growing. They’d never seen it.”

By the late ’50s the black-clad “beat generation” had come to town, centered around a “coffeehouse” called La Bottega on Santa Rosa Avenue just footsteps from the courthouse. It had burlap wall-coverings and folk music and seemed very suspicious to Flohr, as did an adjoining paperback bookstore called The Annex, which was suspected of selling, among other things, the first copies of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in the county.

The first “drug bust” in town didn’t come until the early 1960s but, soon enough, pot was front page news, like when several members of the Cotati City Council — Sonoma State students who had been elected in a unique campaign — helped themselves to marijuana that had been gathered in a raid by the Cotati police.

Things moved quickly at the end of the 20th century — too fast for a middle-aged columnist. I came to rely on trusted sources. One of them was a kid, just out of high school and interested in about everything that had happened and was happening in this town.

He prowled the downtown, finding truth in trash bins and poetry in the quiet nights. He also published the first online “zine” here, revealing some of these truths, before leaving town to make music.

He came back well-prepared to tell his stories.

Thus, seeking memories, I go directly to Gabe Meline, still a Santa Rosa resident and now senior editor of the Bay Area’s prestigious KQED Arts. (You may have recently read his excellent Sonoma Magazine piece on growing up in Coffey Park.)

Despite his youthful adventures — and he had many — Gabe was, in his words “never really big on smoking pot,” but he knew the scene. And, when I asked, he answered.

“Just finding a place to smoke weed safely, a secluded spot, often with strangers, was ‘a mini-adventure,’” he recalled. “It meant exploring areas you wouldn’t normally explore, which is fun! … Underneath the arched bridge at Juilliard Park, in the giant tunnels beneath City Hall, up the rickety rungs and onto the roof” of old downtown buildings.

“In the mid 1990s, for a time, the place downtown was ‘The Rock,’” the operative name for the large sculpture in front of the mall at the corner of Third and B.

“There’s a curved metal wall around the south side,” he remembers, “which gave just barely enough room to squeeze two or three people in to pass a joint around, completely out of sight. The sounds of the mall’s security force and the proximity of traffic just 15 feet away, gave a dangerous thrill to the whole thing.”

The very best “pot story” we have to offer is also Gabe’s. It’s about the time he found marijuana plants growing in the middle of Courthouse Square.

It was several years ago. Traffic lanes still divided the space. Gabe the Grown-Up, who had long since left his downtown prowls behind, was playing with his young daughter near the Rosenberg Fountain on the east side of the square when he saw it.

“There, growing out of the side of the brick walkway, were two plants about 6 inches tall with the unmistakable leaf pattern of cannabis sativa. Right in the middle of downtown!”

Whether accidental or intentional, this was too good to pass up. Gabe uprooted them, very carefully, carried them home and planted them in his backyard.

“I knew nothing about growing weed,” he says, “but this was from Courthouse Square, the most Santa Rosa of Santa Rosa soils — how could I not try? It turns out weed is remarkably easy to grow, and let’s just say that a lot of friends got gifts of ‘Courthouse Kush’ that year.”

Legalization is going to change everything about cannabis, its use and its social standing. We know that. And there are many with reservations about it, you can be certain; some from not knowing enough, others from knowing too much.

Change always comes with some gain and some loss. The gains are pretty obvious. The loss depends on point of view.

Gabe: “One thing I will say regarding legalization is that it’s taken away a forced sense of adventure. You used to have to talk to people — at a party, or gathering, or in places like the parking lot behind Sonoma Coffee Co. or the hill on the east side of Courthouse Square — in order to find someone who might have the stuff. There was a whole set of code words and secret moves to learn. Now, you can just go to a store.”

Where’s the adventure in THAT?

A long, strange trip indeed.