Lynnette Shaw is considered by many in the United States to be a living legend – although, chances are, you may not be familiar with her. One nickname she is known affectionately by is “The Godmother of Ganja”. Her Twitter bio provides an impressive summary of accomplishments: “Invented the licenced medical marijuana dispensary system, 1997. Became test case to stop the industry, 1998. Beat the Feds for the nation and reopened 2017”. As an activist, Shaw’s public advocacy for legalisation got her ‘beat up and busted in the East Bay’, as The Blues Champions website (for the band she fronts) puts it. Aside from singing, Lynnette is a classically-trained piano player who can read music and play the piano by ear.
Lynnette was a crucial contributor to the development of the Proposition 215 (AKA Compassionate Use Act) single ballot initiative and its subsequent success at the polls in 1996. This victory made California the first state in the country to legalise medical cannabis. Nowadays, she runs the CBC (Cannabis Buyers’ Club) Marin Alliance in Fairfax, California – the first licensed medical marijuana dispensary in the US. It was founded in 1997, a historic milestone for the cannabis industry. Lynnette’s acquaintance with cannabis culture began early on in life, when the enterprising young fourteen-year-old started selling pot, in 1969.
In one interview, Shaw had the following to say about this early period of her life: “Coming out of the ‘50s, little girls weren’t allowed to have a paper route. Little girls weren’t allowed to cut the lawn for the neighbour. We couldn’t even wear pants in school. It was a completely suppressed culture from which I escaped.” Shaw also smoked weed, in part to cope with undiagnosed depression. Her father, an IRS employee, would eventually kick her out of the house for smoking a joint and confiscate her college money; he had given her an ultimatum to stop smoking, but she refused. Shaw moved to Hollywood to pursue the entertainment industry. She sang in the hotel circuits and sold weed on the side, as a way to pay for college. In a 2019 ‘Herb’ interview, Shaw said:
“I had the best pot in Hollywood. Nobody had pot in Hollywood in 1979, you know? I started selling pot to all the rock stars at the Rainbow Bar and Grill on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. That’s where I met John Belushi.”
Lynnette had become known as the “weed girl to the stars” and joined the Blues Brothers as a backup singer in 1981. Shaw was nicknamed ‘Bluesetta’ by Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and ‘Blue Lou’ Marini, whose names you may recall from the classic ‘Blues Brothers’ film. She had only done about twelve gigs when Belushi passed away from an overdose in March, 1982. Lynnette says that Belushi rang her to get cannabis so that he could get off ‘the harder stuff’, but tragically he overdosed before she could get to him.
Describing this period, Shaw is quoted as saying: “The agents came after me, even though I was just the weed girl – the hard drugs girl had fled to Canada.” Early on in the overdose investigation, Shaw became a person of interest and was questioned by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) about how various people in Hollywood were using drugs. In an email Shaw sent me, she said: “The first six months after John’s death I had to flee, and trying to sing in public in Northern California just attracted agents. The Hells Angels protected me like big brothers. Sonny Barger (a founding member of the Oakland branch of the Hells Angels) issued a protective order when I was being hunted.” Shaw stayed off the radar with the biker gang’s help for two years. The true culprit for Belushi’s overdose took responsibility towards the end of that time and was arrested.
The woman in question admitted to administering the ‘speedball’ injection (heroin and cocaine) in a ‘National Enquirer’ interview: “I killed John Belushi. I didn’t mean to, but I am responsible.” Describing the lead up to the dealer’s admission, Shaw said: “I went through hell before the real contributor admitted her role. I was constantly being followed.” Shaw developed amnesia at around the time she emerged from hiding with the Hells Angels. I could not get a definitive response from her about how that amnesia developed at the time of publishing, but I believe it was triggered by PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), stemming from a traumatic childhood incident. This trauma was briefly mentioned as something that Shaw never spoke about in a ‘Marin Magazine’ interview from 2011. In our email exchanges, Shaw noted: ‘I did remember some things from before age 12, so I knew my name and that something horrible had happened to me.’ Shaw’s time as an amnesiac in hospital was spent suffering from depression. She couldn’t read or write, or remember who she was, or what had led her up to that point.
Shaw also made suicide attempts in the months and years following Belushi’s death. Describing painful memories, Lynnette told me: ‘I was held in emergency and was released a few times. I never stayed overnight, since I was not violent and had not visibly injured myself. I had crying jags for 12 hours or so. This was not urgent enough to help. The 68 pills I took, provided by the black market, that did not kill me, were not bad enough to help. Suicidal ideation was not enough to help. The two suicide attempts were not dramatic enough to help. My pot dealer saved me, not the hospital or the doctors. The American healthcare system is no good. It is slightly better now than it was in the ‘80s for mental health, but still inadequate. I eventually got enrolled in a local medical programme that allowed me to see a psychiatrist once a month. She was very helpful, but addicted me to pills that made me sick. My discovery of the medical marijuana movement gave me a door to walk through to wellness and sanity. I still have PTSD, but it is controlled and I am tough as can be when it comes to dealing with stress, persecution and heavy handed government actions. As my memory slowly returned, I was able to handle the revelations that unfolded.’
Despite her severe memory loss, Lynnette could remember how to play classical piano. Although she had moved on from live music after Belushi’s death, she slowly began to re-embrace it while attending college in Marin County. “I started playing again, and then I found some pot on the junior college campus and started smoking pot again. I couldn’t remember why, but even though I was very ill, as soon as I found pot I started getting better.” While Lynnette was recovering, she started to play jazz and reggae music and began dating a Vietnam war veteran and activist who was well connected in the cannabis underground scene. He would change her life in 1990, by introducing her to the renowned activist and author of ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’, Jack Herer.
Herer was on a press tour to promote his book at the time and taught her about hemp and the medical applications of cannabis. It dawned on Lynnette that she had been self-medicating with cannabis for much of her life (understandable, given her early life trauma and PTSD). Having made Jack’s acquaintance, she decided to dedicate her life to getting cannabis legalised and to help people with it. Jack sent her to meet Sudi ‘Pebbles’ Trippet (another celebrated activist), who mentored her for a time in the ways of activism, before referring her to Dennis Peron the following year. He was the founder of the first compassionate cannabis club and is still referred to today as the ‘Father of Medical Marijuana’. Lynnette worked at the cannabis club in San Francisco and assisted Peron and Herer until she was obliged to go to the Contra Costa County Jail for 80 days – she had been sentenced for possession of 11 pounds of cannabis.
Herer gifted her a copy of his acclaimed book to read before her jail stint, saying: “Read this, so at least you know what you’re fighting for.” She was released early for good behaviour and chose to work full time at the (then illegal) San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, one of various clubs Peron had founded in the Castro District after witnessing how it benefited AIDS patients, including his partner Jonathan West, who died of AIDs in 1990.
She helped Dennis produce live music shows for ‘Cannabis Freedom Day’ in San Francisco and began performing again. Dennis encouraged her to join lobbying efforts in Sacramento, north of San Francisco – the home of the California State Capitol, where laws are passed.
In an email to me, Lynnette mentioned how Dennis once told them that ‘every politician has a sick family member or dear friend.’ She continued:
‘As the sad stories from our group were recited, the illness that struck home personally would register on the face of the elected official, every time’.
In an interview from January of this year with ‘MJ Brand Insights’, Shaw summarised that period: “From 1992 to 1995, I was the leader of the group of women who went to Sacramento to make the Senators cry.” At that time, neither the media nor the legal authorities were known to pay much heed to gay people (never mind gay people with HIV), let alone gay people speaking about cannabis rights. To bypass this, Dennis utilised Lynnette to attract attention for legalisation. He reportedly told her: “Here’s some money; go get some heels, a power suit, a jacket, short skirt, and push up bra – we are going to take you to Sacramento.”
Shaw would arrange for women with HIV (some of them disabled) to speak to Senators about the AIDS crisis and how cannabis reform would help improve an extremely dire situation. Peron would bring a group of men to speak to politicians. The primary objective (aside from causing Senators to cry) was to get their votes. On the 15th of April, 1994, dispensary patients linked arms around the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club to prevent a law enforcement raid. Peron had received a tip that the club would be raided from Harvey Milk (the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California), at City Hall.
Of this incident, Shaw once said: “Thousands of people went around the block to protect us. Their bodies were frail, with their little skinny arms. Some were grandmas.” Many of the people who joined together in defiance that day were AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) patients who used weed to fight the dreadful pain of their symptoms. The epidemic meant that around 40,000 people in San Francisco were diagnosed with AIDS at the time. The crowd booed as two police vans pulled up, but didn’t open. Journalists began arriving on behalf of various major newspapers along with TV news crews – including CNN, who arrived just as a police van of federal agents came to assist with the raid effort the police had already threatened to start.
In January’s interview with ‘MJ Brand Insights’, Shaw described what happened next: “Dennis gets a call from City Hall, saying [the feds] went away. They couldn’t do it – not on CNN. And that’s when I knew we were going to win.” The raid that almost occurred could have spelled disaster for Shaw, Peron and others. Peron would go on to collaborate with Lynnette to develop ‘The Compassionate Use Act’, and would continue a dedicated life of activism until his passing on January 27th, 2017, after a long battle with lung cancer from a lifetime of heavy cigarette use. While working on the campaign statewide, Lynnette opened the Marin Alliance in Fairfax in 1990, which quickly became a centre for many who were critically ill and dying due to AIDS. This is the same site her dispensary operates from today.
Thanks in no small part to the ‘Yes on Proposition 215’ campaign, which Shaw was instrumental in, Prop 215 succeeded. In 1995, Lynnette was asked by the Chief of police in Marin County to meet for a coffee. The Chief had an Officer who was removed from field duty because he was suffering silently with AIDS, still known at that time as “the gay disease” – there were also many others in the police ranks suffering with it. Not only that, but members of the Chief’s extended family had it. He asked Shaw about pot brownies and how they could be used to help these people. Shaw’s advice to the Chief would lead to the Officer in question regaining significant weight, having lost a frightening amount prior to that (25 pounds a month).
The Chief ended up signing a petition and vowed that he would encourage people to vote ‘yes’ on Proposition 215. He would also go on to assist Shaw to figure out how a permit could be developed for her dispensary, within the boundaries of State law. As part of the ‘Yes on Proposition 215’ campaign, Shaw helped open headquarters in San Francisco and Fairfax. Reminiscing on the campaign, Shaw has been quoted as saying: “I knew we were going to win. (The opposition) had weak arguments, and we had tremendous public support”. The landmark measure laid the foundation for cannabis dispensaries, allowing patients with certain conditions to buy substances derived from cannabis.
When the vote was won, Shaw developed the first business licence in the world for selling cannabis. Six months later, she was sued by President Bill Clinton’s government and became the Federal test case to stop the emergence of a legal cannabis industry. She would endure this civil case for 19 long years. Describing this relentless ordeal in ‘Marin Living Magazine’, Shaw said: “Just a few months after my (dispensary’s) historic grand opening in 1997, (the) Justice Department filed a lawsuit to shut me down. The legal fight required me to attend thousands of hearings in federal court over the course of four Presidential administrations. In January of 1998, I had a marshall in full SWAT gear come to my door and hand me papers (to attend court).”
For a few years initially, Shaw had to go to court three times a week, forcing her to hire someone else to manage her dispensary. “They harassed me, they followed me, they tapped my phone, they jostled me in the streets, they surrounded my house, they sat outside the (cannabis) club, bothering everybody who came in and out”. In 2015, Lynnette won the right to operate a dispensary with the help of her skilled attorney, Greg Anton, at San Francisco’s Circuit Court. This was a victory over the Federal government, effectively saving the cannabis industry and allowing her to re-open her cannabis club, which had been shut down by the authorities in 2011.
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, also known as ‘The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA)’, which legalised weed for recreational use at a State level. In 2017, President Donald Trump’s purge of federal prosecutors included Shaw’s one, ending the years-long campaign against her at long last. The end of Lynnette’s prosecution was likely a happy accident, but nonetheless, she gladly welcomed it. Proposition 64 formed the basis for a comprehensive cannabis licensing programme which would begin operating in January of 2018. Shaw’s resourcefulness, determination and persistence over decades contributed enormously to Californian cannabis activism, and by extension, US activism.
Her crucial place in history alongside the likes of Jack Herer and Dennis Peron cannot be denied. California is seen universally as ground zero in the fight to legalise cannabis across the United States. If Shaw’s court case hadn’t succeeded in 2015, who knows how much longer the fledgling legal cannabis industry would have been stalled for. Worse again, it could have been stomped out entirely with bullying government strategies. Fortunately for America (and by extension, the world), Lynnette Shaw’s unwavering belief in a fairer world where adults can use cannabis without persecution helped lead the charge for major systemic changes.
For that, Lynnette deserves her roses – and she may finally be getting them! In the last email I received from her, Lynnette stated that she recently signed a contract for a documentary film about her life. She also reflected on her many years of activism:
‘I was inspired and supported by Dennis and Jack and Pebbles. Crusading with them was intense but joyful. We were surrounded by love and appreciation and that kept us going.’
Shaw’s example should serve as inspiration for activists here in Ireland, where we’re having our own governmental growing pains with a fledgling medical cannabis industry – just like the ones Shaw experienced in the mid ’90s.
Sources (interviews listed by order of publication year)