Joe Munson’s Frontier Justice
by Jonah Raskin, November 15, 2017
This is a story about something that isn’t supposed to happen. It illustrates the strangeness of the world of marijuana, and for that reason no so-called “reputable” newspaper or magazine wants to touch it. It doesn't fit in with mainstream notions of what happens in the world of marijuana, which is that things are getting better and better, and that law and order and rules and regulations have superseded madness, outlawry and the irrational. Forget about it. We’re still in the Wild West.
On way to begin the story would be on a Sunday morning in November, when four vehicles from the Sonoma County Sherriff’s Department climbed Old Cazadero Road, which has only one lane and that’s unpaved most of the way. At the same time, a U-Haul and three other vehicles in the convoy descended Old Cazadero Road. The passengers in the convoy—many of them medical marijuana patients—hoped to reach River Road before the police intercepted them.
In the U-Haul that Mr. Joe Munson had rented explicitly for the occasion, he and his team had stashed thirty pounds of marijuana that they taken, or stolen or liberated (take your pick) from an illegal, unpermitted marijuana farm at the top of the ridge.
Several of Munson’s San Francisco patients who were suffering from AIDS had been unable to join the crew. But they still wanted their medicine.
No doubt, California’s marijuana czar, Lori Ajax, would like Munson to disappear from the cannabis landscape, not only because he has taken the law into his hands, but also because he boasts about it. In his mid-50s and a ball of energy, he probably has years ahead of him. Indeed he doesn’t seem like an outlaw doomed to an early death like Billy the Kid or “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the bank robber who died at the age of 40, and who would probably be growing marijuana if he were alive today.
That Sunday in November, Munson, his crew and the liberated crop didn’t make it to River Road before the police did. So, for two hours, there was a standoff in the woods while deputies asked questions, examined IDs and wrote down names, addresses and phone numbers and then essentially did nothing at all, perhaps because it would have entailed too much work.
The afternoon escapade in rural Sonoma County was the brainchild of Munson himself. A long-time marijuana grower, friend to medical marijuana patients and a legend in outlaw circles, as well as a husband and father, Munson wanted what he insisted was rightfully his. He had a verbal agreement, he said, to grow marijuana with his business partners. In return for his efforts, he would receive a percentage of the crop.
Strictly old school, with old school methods, Munson might not survive in the brave new world of legal, recreational marijuana, but he was still riding high that Sunday.
During the previous the summer, Munson had run afoul of his partners, or they’d run afoul of him. In any case, he was thrown off the property, told never to return and informed that he had no legitimate claim to any of the marijuana he’d helped to cultivate.
Munson consulted with Victoria Shanahan, one of several lawyers who have defended him and who recommended that he not “raid” the farm. She reminded him that he might be arrested for trespassing. Munson went ahead with his plan. It took him a couple of weeks, but he recruited Sonoma County marijuana maven, Alexander Carpenter, along with two beefy friends and half-a-dozen medical marijuana patients. Then, he led the convoy up Old River Road and into the woods.
“We’re not taking any guns or weapons with us,” Munson explained. “If they start something we’re going to leave.”
Everyone, including the beefy fellows, agreed. But when Munson and his crew arrived at the primitive encampment and began to remove containers filled with marijuana—and load them into the U-Haul—there was an altercation.
Words were exchanged and someone threatened to kill Munson.
Munson had invited me along for the ride and urged me to write a story about what “the afternoon adventure,” as Alexander Carpenter called it. I scribbled madly in my notebook and at the same time witnessed the altercation, though I was too far away to determine who started it. Then, it was time to beat a retreat.
On the way downhill, I sat in the U-Haul with Munson and Carpenter, a self-defined “expert cannabis consultant,” who had come to observe the event and stay detached, though he didn’t entirely succeed. When the altercation began, he emerged from the U-Haul and drew close to the action.
Munson, Carpenter and I assumed that the police would be waiting for us near the bottom of the road. We’re veterans of the marijuana scene and know how it operates.
“I’d rather that the sheriff have the weed than those thieves,” Munson said. He added, “Those idiots didn’t hide the crop like I told them to. They made it easy for me to take what rightfully belonged to me.”
The first police officer on the scene blocked the road with his vehicle and approached Munson, who must have looked like the ringmaster.
“What’s going on?” the officer asked in a non-threatening tone of voice.
He explained that he was responding to a 911 call about the theft of a computer.
Munson explained that he had come to collect a debt that was owed him and that no one had taken a computer.
Then he voluntarily opened the U-Haul and said that the containers were filled with marijuana destined for his patients. The officer nodded his head and said that if it were medical marijuana it would presumably be given away and therefore didn’t have any cash value. He implied that no one would be arrested and charged with robbery, which is what we wanted to believe.
When I showed my media credentials and asked the commanding officer if he would be willing to answer questions, he replied, “I’m not giving a press conference.”
Then, he went up the hill to investigate, leaving Munson and his crew under the supervision of two young officers.
“Stuff like this happens all the time,” Sgt. Russell explained. “It’s a common occurrence.”
Sgt. Dietrich told the crew, “I voted to legalize weed. I hope some day it’s in the same boat as tobacco and alcohol.”
When Munson said that his marijuana business was “farm to patient,” Dietrich smiled and said, “That’s the way to do it.”
One of the medical marijuana patients asked Dietrich how he thought the matter would be resolved.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “My commanding officer has a lot of leeway and there’s a huge gray area.”
He added, “It’s hard to know what’s legal and what illegal these days.”
Not surprisingly, it didn’t look like a huge gray area or illegal to J.P., a medical marijuana patient who had survived cancer. Nor did it seem like a gray area to the three women—Denise Lindquist, Helen Starling and Rene Bullock—who stood close together the whole time and who told the officers they just wanted their medicine.
Lindquist has MS and breast cancer.
“One of the biggest things in my life has been medical cannabis,” she explained. “Experimenting with strains has been an ongoing process. I’m getting closer to the right cocktail that will help me have a better quality of life. Joe Munson is helping me.”
Helen Starling has cancer of the uterus. Rene Bullock has cancer and brain lesions. All of them, including J.P., who has survived Stage 3B Melanoma, insisted that marijuana reduced their pain.
“Medical marijuana helped me get off opioids,” J.P. said. “Pot also helped me through my angst-ridden teen years.”
After an hour or so, the commanding officer returned with the names and contact information for the growers on the ridge. Then, he told Munson and the crewmembers they were free to go with the marijuana.
“You took the law into your own hands,” a patient told Munson. He nodded his head and said, “Maybe so, but the whole point was to get the marijuana to those who need it.”
Munson climbed behind the wheel of the U-Haul. The convoy moved out and the deputies moved on.
“Times have changed,” Munson said. “Five years ago this never would have happened.”
Indeed, no one had been arrested and no marijuana had been confiscated. On the frontier a kind of rough justice had prevailed. Munson’s law carried the day and Munson’s patients received their medicine.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.)