Sitting in the lobby of MJ Unpacked this October, Lynnette Shaw could scarcely believe her eyes. After decades of bitter legal battles and constant harassment by the feds, the self-described “godmother of legal cannabis” watched as cannabis professionals briskly walked into investor meetings and proudly displayed their wares. Under her tearful gaze, the increasingly normalizing business of cannabis looks anything but ordinary; the realization of her lifelong dream was too hard won to take for granted now. “It’s surreal and it’s fabulous,” says Shaw. “It’s what I had envisioned, but I didn’t know it would take over 20 years.”
Lynnette Shaw, Tommy Chong and Anthony Rangel at MJ Unpacked
When she opened what she believes was the country’s first dispensary in 1997, Shaw unwittingly became what she describes as “the test case for the entire industry.” Caught in the crosshairs of a supportive local government and the virulently anti-cannabis administrations of three different presidents, the CBC Marin Alliance became one of the nation’s main cannabis battlegrounds. But the hardships she took upon herself as the federal agents’ primary target paid off for the movement—in the decades it took to settle her case, others quietly continued to develop the industry into what it is today. “Those guys thought they could just run over this little girl from Marin County, she says defiantly. “But I’m from Antioch, California, and that’s a country town. I’m a tough chick.”
The long road to becoming a martyr for the legal cannabis industry started in adolescence, when her father threw her out of the house for smoking a joint and took away her college money for good measure. The plan backfired.
“What did I do when I got kicked out? Sold pot to work my way through college, of course,” says Shaw, grinning mischievously. After discovering she had a knack for cannabis entrepreneurship, she became known in Hollywood as the “Weed girl to the stars” while also singing backup for the Blues Brothers. “I always had the best weed—and I still do,” she says, casting a glance around the conference lobby as if challenging the new generation of growers to argue.
It was this reputation that got her caught up in the investigation into John Belushi’s death, which was Shaw’s first run-in with the feds. As she tells it, Belushi called her up hoping to use cannabis to get off the “harder stuff,” but he overdosed while waiting for her to arrive.
“The agents came after me, even though I was just the weed girl—the hard drugs girl had fled to Canada,” she says. “I had to go to the Hell’s Angels to protect me, because I was their weed girl too.” As Hunter S. Thompson’s lurid depictions of the motorcycle gang flash before my eyes, I ask her if they behaved like gentlemen. “They were my brothers. I had an armed guard 24/7, because I was that valuable to them.” Eventually the woman who sold Belushi the speedball that killed him was caught, and Shaw was able to move on. She quit rock n’ roll to go back to college, and settled down in Marin County as a member of a classical orchestra.
In the 90s, Shaw befriended frontline activists Jack Herer and Dennis Peron, who saw cannabis as a crucial part of the fight against AIDS. When she began working at Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, California’s first compassionate care cannabis club, she saw the epidemic take its toll firsthand. “40,000 people in San Francisco had been diagnosed with AIDS,” she says, “My mother had trained me as a Quaker to help humankind.”
Lynnette Shaw stands beside Dennis Peron and Eddy Lepp
She says Peron decided she would be a perfect media representative for the growing movement to legalize medical cannabis access, and groomed her—both figuratively and literally—to be one of the faces of the cause. “Dennis said, Lynnette, you’re kind of quiet but you look good on camera, so we’re gonna take you to Bloomie’s and do something about your hair—and for God’s sake put some makeup on,” Shaw recalls. “From 1992 to 1995 I was the leader of the group of women who went to Sacramento to make the senators cry.”
The flashpoint of the movement came in 1994, after Peron got a tip that the club would be raided. “Dennis was Harvey Milk’s best friend—the widow of the Castro—so when something was going on he’d get a call from City Hall,” she says. But this time Peron wasn’t going to run—the time had come to make their stand. “We were saying, we don’t want to go to jail!” But Dennis shouted, ‘Are you men or are you mice?’” Shaw says. “And we said, okay Dennis, we’re men. So I got on the bus fully expecting to go to jail.” But what she didn’t expect was the crowd of familiar faces waiting for her once they arrived.
Shaw was an intake counselor at the cannabis club; she spent her days with AIDS patients, listening to their stories. When the bus pulled up in front of the club building, the men and women she had been caring for were all there, prepared for battle.
“There were at least a thousand people who had linked arms to protect us,” she says. “I started to cry. I still cry.”
The protesters drove away two paddy wagons of local police, shouting at them and shaking their fists. Journalists started showing up, major papers, TV news crews, and finally CNN rolled up—just as the large black paddy wagon of federal agents came to finish what the local police had started. “Then Dennis gets a call from City Hall, saying [the feds] went away. They couldn’t do it—not on CNN,” says Shaw. “And that’s when I knew we were going to win.”
In 1996, Proposition 215 passed, the first legislation to allow patients access to medical cannabis. Not long afterward, Peron helped Shaw find a dispensary location in Marin County. There in the town of Fairfax, Shaw says she found an unlikely ally in the town’s chief-of-police. “I have officers down,” he told her, referring specifically to police officers who had contracted AIDS on the job, “and I think you need a business license. I want them to have a place to legally get medical marijuana.” Together they negotiated a list of guidelines to present to the planning commission, which approved the license.
But the federal government had no intention of giving states the right to decide on medical cannabis. “In January of 1998 I had a marshall in full SWAT gear come to my door and hand me papers,” she says, describing the moment that began the fight of her life. In the first few years she had to go to court three times a week to deal with the suit brought against her by President Clinton, forcing her to turn the business over to a manager. “This case went on for 19 years. They harassed me, they followed me, they tapped my phone, they jostled me in the streets, they surrounded my house, they sat outside the club, bothering everybody who came in and out,” Shaw says. The federal harassment campaign was designed to push her beyond her limits. Agents threw everything they could think of short of physical violence at her in order to make her life so unbearable that she would give up. But she never did. “I had my chief of police send the local people over to tell the feds to go away from their town.”
Proving the capacity of the federal government to hold onto a grudge regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in the Oval Office, the case was prosecuted by the offices of three consecutive Attorney Generals. When Obama was running for office, Shaw hoped she was finally voting for a president who would drop the case and give Shaw her life back.
“I met with his sister at a fundraiser, and I told her, ‘Gee, if your brother becomes president will you tell him to get rid of the federal agents who have been sitting outside my house for twelve years?’” she says.
When his sister insisted that the Obamas supported medical marijuana, Shaw campaigned for him herself.
The federal agents went away when he won, but it didn’t last long. “18 months later he started working on reelection and realized he needed the police lobby. Since I was still marijuana criminal #1, Obama sent in agents to seize my landlord’s land.”
For a time it seemed to Shaw that the fight was over, and she had lost. The town froze her license and she headed south, the feds still hot on her tail even with the business shut down. “I fled to L.A. where I still had friends from the old days, and it’s a different federal jurisdiction,” she says. There she found another group of unexpected allies when she fell for the brother of a member of the Wu Tang Clan. She cautioned him not to get involved with someone on the United States most wanted list, but he was undeterred. “He said we’re Wu Tang, don’t worry about it,’ and sent an armored car to pick me up on a date,” she says. From then on the rap group protected her and helped her keep a low profile.
When the federal budget for pursuing cannabis charges was cut in 2014, the town of Fairfax told her to come home. She accepted, thrilled to see the war wasn’t over yet. “We went back in front of the same judge I’d been going before for 16 years,” Shaw says. “He was surprised to see me.” By then Shaw was far from the only operating dispensary in California, a fact her lawyer was quick to point out to the judge. The prosecutor showed their hand, indicating that no matter what other dispensaries did, Shaw would not be allowed to escape their net. “At that my judge stood up, furious, and pointed the finger of shame at the prosecutor saying, ‘Don’t you remember equal justice under the law?'”He ruled against the Department of Justice, citing a violation of “common decency.” In a happy accident, Trump’s 2017 purge of federal prosecutors happened to include Shaw’s, finally ending the campaign against her. “Trump did me a solid,” she says with a chuckle.
Left: Emerald Cup, 2018 with Debra Tsouprake, Omar Figueroa, and Lynnette Shaw | Right: Lynnette Shaw and Ed Rosenthal
Today Shaw is back in her shop, dispensing the good green medicine as if she had been there all along. It’s a good thing, too, since ironically, she has become another patient in the aftermath of her ordeal. “I need medical marijuana, I have PTSD,” she says. But she’s certain it was worth it. “I was chosen for this—God sent me to fight for everybody’s rights.” She considers the struggle for medical cannabis to be something that took the place of raising children in her life. “You are all my godchildren, and I am your godmother,” she declares, gesturing to the throngs of cannabis professionals milling about the lobby, leaders of an industry that survived against the odds. “As any parent knows you fight to the death for your baby, and that’s my baby right there.”