The Herbalist


When the cops arrested him this time, Kenneth Toglia was sitting down. It happened Wednesday, November 8, at a meeting of the New York Medical Marijuana Patients Cooperative, the buyers’ club Toglia operates to sell marijuana to patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, MS, and glaucoma. The police tagged him with felony possession, a charge soon dropped to a misdemeanor.

Though the officers merely ticketed patients, Toglia says, they arrested two other volunteers of the cooperative, who were meeting in the narrow East Village walk-up at 130 East Seventh Street near Tompkins Square, and confiscated more than a pound of pot and a pile of oatmeal raisin cookies baked with cannabis oil, which give patients with lung disease an easier way to digest the substance. All but two dozen of the cookies, which somewhat mysteriously disappeared, turned up in the officers’ report.

This is the second time Toglia, a lifelong activist who also coordinates substance abuse assistance programs at two community service agencies for the mentally ill and HIV-positive, has been arrested for his efforts to provide sick people with marijuana, a drug that dramatically relieves nausea for chemotherapy patients, restores appetite for people with AIDS, reduces spasticity for MS sufferers, eases inner-eye pressure for those with glaucoma, and alleviates pain. For this crime, he faces up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine. His next court date is December 20.

Undaunted, Toglia would like to announce that the cooperative’s Wednesday-night meetings will continue running from 6 to 8 p.m. at the same place where the activists were busted last time, the University of the Streets, the 34-year-old community organization that offers rehearsal space and dance, jazz, and martial arts lessons to the neighborhood. The cooperative will not sell pot at that site anymore. It will register new patients for the service there, and then direct them to a new location for medical marijuana.

A couple other buyers’ clubs operate around town, but Toglia’s is known for its efforts to reach out to a poorer, more disenfranchised clientele, even giving away pot to those who prove they have very low incomes. Buyers’ clubs, which have existed in New York from the late 1980s, have traditionally been fairly underground groups, rotating their meetings among a tight circuit of private apartments, advertised by word of mouth. Toglia holds the cooperative’s meetings in semipublic, in the houses of mainstream institutions that bolster their communities with vital support services. For a year, the cooperative met in the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center on the West Side. The group moved to the University of the Streets this fall.

“There’s a certain security to the club,” says Toglia, 34, who lives in Greenpoint. “They can get pot anywhere. Really what they get from us is a sense of community and a larger political purpose. We explain to them that it is quasi-legal and that it really is a kind of civil disobedience on their part just to have our card. We’re registering people to vote now. It’s not required, but we strongly encourage it.”

Much like the activists from California involved in the medical marijuana case the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear last week, Toglia sees himself as a political activist, not a pot dealer. He knows about the lag between common knowledge and social change, and has lived a life on the hinge that swings one to the other: direct action.

Toglia came to New York in the ’80s with his single mom, a gay rights activist. Caught with weed and thrown out of Bryant High School in Queens, he found the hardcore punk rock scene and, like so many other political kids, divided his time between Black Flag shows and the radical dreaming of the Lower East Side squatters. He learned construction and specialized in seizing abandoned buildings. In 1987, he organized resistance to the shuttering of a squat on East Fifth Street. In 1988, he helped steer protests against the curfew at Tompkins Square Park, where disorganized cops violently assaulted demonstrators and neighborhood residents, triggering a quake of public outrage. A later clash led to his spending a year in Rikers Island and Ogdensburg for inciting a riot.

He reentered the world through a work-release program at Housing Works, a housing organization for people with HIV and AIDS, where he met patients who told him how marijuana eased their symptoms. In time, he started the cooperative. “I saw that it was not taken seriously where there was really a great need for it,” he says. “We started out very loose and disorderly, as you can imagine.”

About 10 people now run the cooperative, which is searching for a permanent sanctuary, possibly a church. The group has more than 600 registered members. They buy the pot on the black market, and Toglia believes it is all grown in New York State. Patients who prove that they have a chronic degenerative or terminal illness—usually with official forms, letters from their doctors, or prescriptions for commonly known medications—come to weekly meetings to buy the high-quality weed and enter a supportive community that provides substance abuse counseling, intervention, and social service referrals.

The first time Toglia was arrested over medical marijuana, as he was bringing pot to the house of a bedridden patient, he spent 72 hours in prison before being arraigned. Finally, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, then served his punishment by volunteering at an AIDS organization in Brooklyn, the kind of work he does anyway. This time, getting out took only 25 hours, and prosecutors reduced his charges to a misdemeanor.

“We told them we’d go to the grand jury and say we were giving it to people with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and MS, and that if they think that’s a crime they can charge us,” he says.

Ruth Liebesman, one of Toglia’s lawyers, says a verbal understanding with the district attorney not to prosecute medical marijuana cases has existed for four years, ever since the first major medical marijuana case in New York City, when felony charges against a man named Johann Moore were dismissed. Toglia says a largely sympathetic police force has stopped more than 40 patients of the cooperative over the past two years and let almost all of them go, many with their weed. He is now searching for doctors, nurses, and lawyers to help build the group into a larger nonprofit harm-reduction outfit with more services, and says activists are discussing a petition drive to put the issue of medical marijuana laws on the ballot; similar drives have passed medical marijuana laws in California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Colorado.

“I really see the medical marijuana thing as where clean needles were a couple of years ago,” he says. “Established figures don’t like it, but the fact is, the scientific proof is there. It’s needed here in New York and they have to make some kind of allowance for it.

“Eventually the law is going to change. Marijuana prohibition was kept in place by misinformation. In the Internet age, everybody already knows the deal.”

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