By Doug Fine
Inside Tucson's Tumbleweeds Health Center, a dignified, top-shelf cannabis club and education center owned by two young health care professionals, Kim Williams and Dana Zygmunt, the first three members I met on a recent visit were exactly the outsider's stereotype of Arizonans. Not Arizonan cannabis aficionados and patients. Just Arizonans.
Which is to say older, politically conservative, and military-affiliated, respectively. And this explains why the Drug Peace is about to break out nationwide: the right side of the political spectrum is on the same bus as the left. Across party lines, Americans grok that the nation will be safer, stronger, healthier and richer when cannabis is removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act so states can regulate it as they wish.
We're seeing such rapid legislative change because the numbers have seeped through to politicos: forty percent of Colorado Republicans voted to legalize cannabis last November. A majority of Kentuckians support ending the war on cannabis. Even Ronald Reagan's secretary of state George Shultz is a vocal Drug Peace activist.
Here's how the tipping point looks on the ground in the heartland: first through the Tumbleweeds door that July afternoon in downtown Tucson was a 68-year-old cancer patient named Suzanne. Cane in hand, she hobbled slowly inside, confabbed with 32-year-old Zygmunt on a couch for a while, shuffled through the lending library's "cooking with cannabis" section, and then agreed to sit down with a visiting journalist. I asked her why she's come to cannabis.
"Um, I need to eat," she said. "My doctor said it's time. The chemo has left me with terrible indigestion. I lived through the sixties, I tried (cannabis) a few times, so I know it won't hurt me. We're picking out a strain that will help my appetite."
Wondering if there was a strain that wouldn't, it occurred to me that one tends to joke about The Munchies, but in Suzanne's case the phenomenon is a matter of life or death. When I asked her if she feels any stigma about discussing her medication outside of the Tumbleweeds tastefully decorated walls, and she looked me in the eye and said evenly, "I'm trying to regain my health. I'm going to use what works."
Next into the Tumbleweeds lobby, shaking off the water from a warm Monsoon season downpour outside, was a considerably more nimble woman named Lindsey, a 28-year-old registered Republican and lifelong Arizonan who volunteers at Tumbleweeds. When I asked the striking redhead of the "yee haw! I'm a Western gal!" variety why she does so, she said, "To the thousands of patients Kim and Dana have helped, the people here become family. It's not the same atmosphere at the (three Tucson) dispensaries, where people just come for their medicine. It's not just that these women are great, caring people, which they are, it's that Tumbleweeds provides information about cannabis to any member of the community, without judgment. We're open to all walks of life."
And Arizona, especially Tucson, has it all. Lindsey's own first approach at Tumbleweeds, in fact, encapsulates the journey the law-abiding world is making en masse back to the cannabis plant. "I remember when I first rang that bell nearly two years ago --- I was so scared. I teach gymnastics, I'm conservative. I consider cannabis to be a health maintenance tool for people like me. So I came in with some questions. Three months later I was volunteering."
The membership club model Williams and Zygmunt have developed is essentially a health and education center. Arizona allows free cannabis distribution among patients, but not sale outside of dispensaries. So Tumbleweeds' 205 members pay a monthly fee for access to the library, talks like the one I have the previous night surrounding my book Too High to Fail, and educational seminars on cannabinoid science, tincture delivery and cannabis history. The eighth of an ounce of top shelf cannabis flowers that members are provided is free and is grown by Williams herself (her iguanas patrol the garden for bugs - I've seen them in action).
When I asked the 42-year-old Williams a sign interpreter by training, why she wanted to get into the cannabis business, she said, "Well, I love the plant, for one thing. I see how helpful it is to my own health maintenance routine. But we're figuring out a business model as we go along. We thought we'd open a dispensary in Colorado, and we were already on our way (from California) when Arizona voters allowed medicinal cannabis, so we turned the car south and got in on the ground floor (in the Grand Canyon State). We decided to become a health center rather than a dispensary because we wanted to create an educational environment rather than just be providers."
Tumbleweeds co-founder Zygmunt, a nurse (specializing in elder care) and a former marine, hammered home that point. "For me it's all about the interactions I have with people like Suzanne," the Buffalo, New York native told me. "It didn't have to be cannabis, it's just that cannabis is helpful to so many people. What I love is that a lady like her comes in desperate for relief and in a few minutes she's showing me pictures of her grandkids. I could talk to her all day. This is a nice niche for me. Helping people who are very worried about their health to relax."
A muscular man about old enough to be Suzanne's grandson strolled into Tumbleweeds next. Turns out Lee, 24, is a special forces veteran of three "intense" tours in Asia and Africa, some of which he can talk about, some of which he can't. One didn't need to ask why cannabis is helpful to him. I'd seen enough returning vets getting both physical and psychological relief from the plant by this point to make an educated guess. But he volunteered to me that the ancient plant helps "steer me away from pills." He also said that he openly talks about the benefits of the plant with his friends who are still in the military, including those with whom he deployed in high risk operations. "For people who don't know anything about cannabis, Tumbleweeds is a perfect place."
Although at this point in my myth-dispelling Tumbleweeds research I found myself asking, "Where are the Cheech Marin characters?," none of this day's visitors surprised Williams and Zygmunt, a couple who have been together for six years. "We've had five star generals in here," Williams said. "Doctors. Lawyers. In Arizona the patients have spoken, and we are here for all of them - from a fast food employee to high-ranking medical officials. I love the variety of people as much as any other part of this adventure."
Zygmunt added, "As a health care professional for ten years, I think that the medical establishment in Tucson gets cannabis as a medical tool, and supports our work. Doctors send people here all the time."
And that's how a woman-owned institution that provides cannabis education in a Red State thrives long enough to prepare for its second anniversary celebration, which will be held in November. "We're a farmer's market here," Williams told me, stamping a dollar bill with a cartoon dialog bubble that causes George Washington to appear to say, "I grew hemp." "Not a supermarket."