Reefer Madness

As the push for legally available medical marijuana has become the headline-grabbing, hot-button debate of the day, conservative attorneys Rob and Jessica Corry—no strangers to controversy themselves—have become the issue's biggest boosters. But are they the right people for the job?

March 2010

Things began to change in 2007, when a state court lifted the five-patient limit for each caregiver. The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and soon after he took office the U.S. Department of Justice announced formally that federal law-enforcement officials would make marijuana offenses a low priority. This past July, the Colorado Board of Health held a public, daylong meeting at Metro State that was attended by impassioned medical marijuana advocates; the board essentially took no steps to further regulate the business. On top of everything else, the dismal economy has motivated more people to explore medical marijuana as a viable business and has caused politicians of unexpected persuasions—most notably Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California—to more openly discuss whether a less restrictive national marijuana policy might provide welcome tax revenue while also neutralizing Mexican drug cartels.

By last fall the "green rush" was on, and as of January, amid mounting efforts to curb the industry's growth, the number of Colorado medical marijuana patients was hovering around 40,000 while dispensaries in and around Denver, as estimated by sales tax-license filings, suddenly outnumbered Starbucks outlets. These developments, depending on your perspective, are either a sign of marijuana's budding cultural and commercial legitimacy or of the impending apocalypse.

Despite the controversy, there's not much debate about marijuana's ability to relieve the symptoms of certain medical conditions. It makes cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy less nauseated, calms muscle spasms for multiple sclerosis sufferers, and provides anti-inflammatory relief for people with chronic pain—after more than a year of taking steroid injections and prescription painkillers for a herniated disc in my lower back, with unsatisfying results and unwanted side effects, I became a registered patient last fall. Marijuana possesses other effects that keep sufferers from relying too heavily on other drugs, particularly prescription painkillers, which now kill more people than traffic accidents in Colorado and 15 other states.

Still, the medical marijuana movement has boomed so suddenly that it's left many people wary, and manic media coverage has fueled their concerns. Local news outlets have run dozens of stories about dispensaries: openings, governmental efforts to limit them, and robberies. These accounts often quote anonymous law enforcement sources and tend to alarm rather than to illuminate the issue. (During a week last December when there were 14 bank robberies in the Denver area, local coverage of the medical marijuana situation outweighed bank stories by almost three to one. There was no discussion about the threat bank thefts pose to public safety.)

Medical marijuana makes strange bedfellows out of people; the Corrys, its two most vocal and visible advocates in Denver—and throughout the state—are registered Republicans. And this niche health-care debate is happening just as other conservatives are feverishly arguing that the U.S. government should stay out of the interactions between doctors and patients—generally the arrangement medical marijuana advocates want. Things have turned so upside down that some observers think Republicans should adopt a pro-marijuana stance as a purist constitutional issue. Although these trends terrify social conservatives, they could help the GOP lure back the young voters and independents they've lost in recent election cycles. Mason Tvert, the executive director of the pro-legalization Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), and a close friend of the Corrys, expects medical marijuana, and perhaps legalization, to soon become a conservative talking point. He notes that right-leaning columnists Kathleen Parker and George Will already have suggested legalization as a remedy for the violence being perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels.

This unprecedented paradigm shift—or at least the debate about whether one is under way—has vaulted the Corrys into a prominent public position. In the January issue of this magazine, Rob was named one of the 50 most influential people in Denver, and Jessica commands a similar amount of influence. Despite a couple of self-inflicted public humiliations, these publicity-hungry, media-savvy activists remain loyally wedded to their pet causes. They don't see the world—be it marijuana, marriage, or morality—the way many people do. Their goal is a return to the purest definitions of American freedom—the kind of freedom that enables adults to exercise personal choice in all walks of life without the intrusive presence of federal (or state, or local) government. Today, that belief, the one that pays the Corrys' mortgage, is expressed in fighting to give adults the right to sell, buy, and ingest marijuana. Tomorrow, without a doubt, it will be something else. Because anyone who thinks he can silence the Corrys simply doesn't grasp this couple's taste for uphill battles, especially ones that enable them to bask in the spotlight, no matter how harsh its glare might become.

On a frigid January night one block from Cheesman Park, the Corrys' stately home pulses with a bright, welcoming glow. The broad front porch has three doors, an uncorrected remnant of when, years ago, the home was subdivided into six units. Although only one family lives here now, the frenetic energy of the Corrys' brood, along with an open-door policy that would make Lady Liberty herself proud, gives the house a buzz it likely had decades ago.

The tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free are all welcome at the Corry house. In addition to hosting parties for their coterie of political friends—Mason Tvert has played Santa Claus for the Corrys' two young daughters, and their annual political scandal-themed Halloween bash draws local pols of all affiliations—the family has been known to hire homeless people to do yard work. Later tonight, the Corrys' young nanny, who happens to be a liberal vegan, will move his things into the attic apartment; his presence will make it easier for the parents to maintain their impossibly busy schedule. This weekend, Jessica will pen a column for the left-leaning Huffington Post. She and Rob will end up cowriting a second HuffPo post on Saturday after state Senator Chris Romer suddenly withdraws his controversial regulation proposal. And Rob still has to prepare an alternative resolution to regulate the industry and present it to the state Legislature with the hope of snaring a sponsor.

While the food cooks—a multicultural smorgasbord of sushi, Middle Eastern skewers, salad, pita, and cannolis for dessert—the Corrys' older daughter, a white-blonde four-year-old named Cate, precociously assembles a small plate of cheese, crackers, and berries, while two-year-old Caroline watches a video in another room. Over a soundtrack of protest-era Stevie Wonder, Rob describes how the late-19th century French colonial home may have once been a speakeasy, during the time when alcohol was even more frowned upon than marijuana is now, and he notes that his basement offers ideal conditions for a grow room. "Maybe I'll set that up once I'm done practicing law," he jokes. "Make some real money."

Dinner offers a well-rehearsed scene; the two often slip into playfully adversarial Hepburn-Tracy-like banter in front of others, highlighted by rapid-fire exchanges that Jessica sometimes punctuates with a flirty air kiss or a wink toward her husband. As Rob and Jessica chatter back and forth, Cate and Caroline happily climb into and out of their mother's lap while her food gets cold. Rob's told me that he's still hoping to have a son—despite the fact that the marriage might charitably be described as having had its ups and downs—and when I mention this to Jessica later, she says that if they did it they'd probably need a surrogate. She has a rare vascular condition that requires regular procedures to reinvigorate her blood flow, which could make it too risky to carry another child to term. (She's also diabetic.) The 31-year-old mom describes all this frankly, except when she doesn't want her daughters to hear too much. "It's a terminal condition, but so is life, right?" she says with a glance toward her girls. "Last year it looked so bad for a while that the doctors said it might have K-I-L-L-E-D me before I turned 40, but they were able to get it under control."

"You should try medical marijuana for appetite stimulation," Rob says to Jessica.