The story of Lynnette Shaw is, in essence, the story of medical cannabis in California.
Before she was sued by President Bill Clinton, before she was tailed 24-7 by DEA agents, and before she was taken into hiding by the Wu-Tang Clan — yes, all those things really happened — Shaw was working with legendary cannabis advocate Dennis Peron to help patients suffering from AIDS find relief in the form of cannabis.
In 1996, Shaw started the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana Alliance, or MAMM, in the Marin County town of Fairfax.
“I like to think of myself as the godmother of dispensaries,” Shaw says, “and that all the dispensaries are my godchildren.”
She certainly has a claim to the title, as hers was the first dispensary in the country ever to receive a permit to sell medical marijuana. Sitting at a makeshift desk at the back of her store, Shaw beams with pride as recalls the many people she helped — she refers to her patients as her family — and the long, arduous battle she’s waged to return to the place where it all began.
While Shaw opened her dispensary before California’s landmark Proposition 215 — for which she played a big role in getting passed — the Department of Justice filed a civil case against her in 1998, banning her from the distribution of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. That move began what would ultimately turn into a nearly 19-year legal battle. Things started rather inauspiciously when Pres. Clinton sued her.
“That lawsuit was a civil lawsuit, which was his way of playing chess,” Shaw says. “He’s a very intelligent person — he knew he couldn’t just write over the Constitution.”
Shaw cleverly realized that, due to double-jeopardy laws, as long as her case continued in civil court, she could not be tried in criminal court. Thus, she worked to keep the case going, filing appeal after appeal while the government spent millions in their efforts to shut her down.
Finally, in 2011, guided by edicts from the Obama Administration, MAMM was finally forced to close its doors. Shaw’s car was repossessed and her home foreclosed upon, and she told SF Weekly that two DEA agents in a white Ford Crown Victoria began to follow her wherever she went.
“One time, I sent someone over with some coffees,” she recalls with a grin. “They didn’t roll down their windows.”
In the larger scheme, however, things were far from funny.
“It was Armageddon,” she says. “They stripped me of my Social Security. They threatened me. I was jostled in the streets. They wanted information.”
Fearing her high profile could bring harm to other members of the medical cannabis community, Shaw fled to Los Angeles. “I was safer in L.A., and they couldn’t really find me because the Wu-Tang Clan was hiding me out,” she says.
Yes, that would be the famed hip-hop group and apparent ally to cannabis dispensary owners in need.
Shaw hid out with the “Protect Ya Neck” rappers for more than a year, and even had a romantic relationship with the brother of late member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Incredibly, it would be another U.S. president who set in motion the rebirth of MAMM.
“Trump did us a favor,” Shaw laughs. “He fired my prosecutor!”
Indeed, President Trump’s house cleaning of many U.S. Attorneys across the country earlier this year led to Shaw’s former landlord being able to settle his case. Now free to reclaim her license, which the town of Fairfax had kindly suspended in hopes she’d one day be able to return, MAMM was ready to reopen.
Nearly a month after being back in business — and free from court dates for the first time in two decades — Shaw says the best part of MAMM’s return is seeing the patients she has grown so close with.
“That’s the victory, to have all my little people rolling in with their wheelchairs and coming in with their canes,” she says. I really missed my family. Every time one of my old members comes in, it’s the most joyful, wonderful thing. My life is coming back. My people are coming back.”
With MAMM back open, Shaw has lofty ambitions.
“My goal is to see marijuana peace, not war,” she says. “And I think that the revolution that I birthed here in Fairfax was the start of that goal.”