Selling Pot in the 70’s + 80’s in San Francisco | An Interview with Alia Volz
Alia Volz grew up in San Francisco in the 70’s and 80’s with a mother famous for selling her pot brownies. Alia recounts her experiences and what she later learned about the political landscape in her new book Home Baked, My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco. She gave us a sneak peek into her life and what she wrote about in this new book.
Tell us About Yourself and What You Do?
I’ve been a nonfiction writer for quite some time. I’ve got a lot of essays out and about, and this is my first book length project. It’s called Home Baked, My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco.
It’s the story of my family’s pioneering cannabis edibles business, which was the first to do high volume in San Francisco in the 70s. They were distributing upwards of 10,000 brownies a month when I was born. During the AIDS crisis it transitioned into the dawn of medical marijuana.
So ultimately the book is about the transition from party drug to panacea and how that happened through the AIDS crisis in San Francisco specifically.
What made you want to want to write this book?
This is a story that has always been with me. I grew up during the days of cannabis prohibition and I always knew from early childhood that the family business was illegal. It was a secret that I grew up guarding very closely even as a young child – aware that my parents could go to prison if anybody found out what they were involved in. I felt like I had this rich world that I wanted to let people into, when it became safe enough to do that.
The ‘why now’ is a little bit different. I think I came back to the book in 2016 and it was when California was looking at legalizing at the state level the recreational use of cannabis.
The industry changed so much. Now everybody’s got access to cannabis and it’s a younger generation.
I found that it was starting to sit uneasily with me that no one was talking about HIV anymore in that context. I grew up during the AIDS crisis and from the perspective of a kid in the medical marijuana movement I saw what people went through to get us this.
We would not have legal recreational cannabis without the AIDS crisis and without the work of those activists. So that became my reason for wanting to tell this story because I feel like we have a certain debt of remembrance to the people who fought for this right and this access.
Tell us More About The AIDS Crisis and Cannabis in California?
San Francisco was ground zero for the gay liberation movement in California. During this era that my folks had Sticky Fingers Brownies as a delivery service we were moving 10,000 brownies a month. My mom’s route was in The Castro and on a weekly basis she delivered to the guys who worked in Harvey Milk‘s camera shop and campaign headquarters.
The disco star Sylvester was a regular customer. My Mom would pack up my stroller with brownies and take me through The Castro. She had a fixed delivery route at that time she was selling to the people at work in the bars and boutiques and restaurants and offices along her route and would sell it high volume to them and then they would distribute.
It was interwoven into the culture. At that time it was pretty wild, there wasn’t a strong sense of consequences yet. It was a really out and open time. The gay liberation movement had just taken off in San Francisco. Harvey Milk made it into office. Of course, he was assassinated soon after.
That period gave people this feeling of limitlessness. It had a lot of extremes and not all the extremes were positive. The Jonestown Massacre happened during that time, people chasing an ideal and then it goes dark. There was a lot of wild intensity.
Then the eighties came along. AIDS came along with this horrible swath of death and destruction through that really vibrant community. It was a very dark time and I was old enough at that point to be aware of it and to feel the loss of people I had grown up thinking of as kind of surrogate aunties and uncles.
Tell us More about the cultural changes in San Francisco?
In the 80s, cannabis became really politicized. We had on the one hand, Ronald Reagan in office who had relaunched the war on drugs and specifically went after cannabis and California cannabis growers.
They used military equipment – spy planes and infrared cameras and helicopters – to go after California growers. There was like this intense conservative backlash. And at the same time you had people getting sick and people dying. It became clear early on that cannabis was helpful with some of the worst AIDS-related symptoms, specifically the wasting syndrome.
Everyone knows about the munchies, right? People who were unable to eat because of nausea and AIDS related anorexia, and were literally wasting away, could find some relief with cannabis but it was completely illegal.
So these underground networks arose. People like Dennis Perrone and Brownie Mary who were both San Francisco based and colleagues of my moms, took the movement public and became quite high profile. It was through that period and that transition that marijuana began to shift in the understanding of the American public to becoming a medicinal substance.
Did You Mom Ever Have Situations with the Police?
My folks believed very strongly in the I Ching and astrology and Tarot, things like that. Especially the I Ching. My mom would toss I Ching hexagram, consulting an ancient Chinese Oracle. She would consult the I Ching before doing anything. They considered it a silent partner in the business.
To this day she will tell you that the reason they never got busted was because the I Ching kept them safe. There was a time, this would have been summer of 1978 when the business was booming. My mom’s weekly hexagrams before going out and doing her delivery route became ominous.
The imagery that she was getting from the hexagrams had to do with incarceration. It had to do with consequences. She took that to mean that the police were sniffing around and she was going to get busted. My folks actually closed the business. Not only that, they moved out of San Francisco to Willits, which is up in the Emerald triangle in Mendocino County.
She never got busted, not once in all of this time. My mom was in the business for 22 years, so it’s kind of amazing. There weren’t even any particularly close calls. There were a couple of times when she was doing her delivery route and her customers alerted her to police in the area. Meanwhile her friends and colleagues, Dennis Parone and Mary Jane Rathbun kept getting busted, so she just kind of stuck to the underground and flew below the radar and trusted her hippie Oracles and it worked.
Tell us About Your Mom’s Role as an Activist?
She kept a low profile. She continued providing the cannabis and her low profile allowed her to do that. She had, since the mid seventies been working with Dennis Parone back when he had the big top marijuana supermarket. This is long before medical marijuana was a factor in San Francisco. This was the forerunner to his cannabis clubs, which were the forerunners to modern dispensaries.
I think he started the big top in 1974. My mom had been selling him large quantities of brownies to carry in his shop. Dennis was key in bringing people like my mom and Brownie Mary and people who had the medicinal goods together and bringing their products into one place where people could access them.
How long have you been a writer professionally?
Oh, I don’t know, maybe about a decade. Um, I think I think about a decade that I’ve been doing it seriously.
What is your relationship with the cannabis plant now?
I’m not a big consumer of cannabis. I believe in it. I care about it, I support it, but I don’t use it very often myself. I don’t love being stoned. It just doesn’t suit me. So I’m not a big consumer recreationally.
I have found some products that I like for sleep. I’ve found a couple of things that I like topically. I have more of an emotional relationship to the plant. I think that comes with growing up in that culture surrounded by it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how cannabis culture has changed in San Francisco. Today you walk into a dispensary and, and it’s like going into an Apple store. It’s very clean. It’s very sterile. Any marijuana odor is generic and subtle. You can’t touch the plant.
When I was a kid, it was just everywhere in our house. There were huge black garbage bags, sometimes with whole plants in them or unprocessed pot. My folks would use shake for baking. The baking process really put it everywhere, grinding.
This is before infusions. Also my parents smoked. And so that was always everywhere and the brownies were always everywhere. I grew up having a physical interaction with the plant. I’ve always loved the smell. To this day, the smell of Mendocino outdoor, just, Oh my God, it sends me right back to babyhood.
What I care about more than anything is that it gets to the point where we can study it appropriately. It seems to me so outlandishly stupid that we have not harnessed the true medicinal potential through appropriate careful scientific study of this plant that obviously interacts with the human body in powerful ways.
How Much Research Did you Have to Do to Write This Book?
The Book is about 80% research driven. My book is classified as a memoir. But it’s more research driven than anything. It’s a memoir that is not about me. So as a character, I’m born halfway through the book and then I’m a baby for next quarter of the book and it’s really only the last, the last quarter of the book that I have a point of view that I can write from my own memories.
Most of the story is composed of information gleaned through interviews and extensive archival research. Having been the kid in the room back then gave me access so that I could talk with growers and I could talk with former customers and people who had been involved in the business. My past gave me access to stories that nobody else would have.
So where can we find Your New Book?
The book is available in bookstores across the country. I would always advocate for checking with your local independent bookstore, but you can get it anywhere!