Senior Cannabis Crusader at Rotary Club: A Day’s Work

Sue Taylor stands before her Rotary Club audience in her “principal’s suit” -- matching black blazer and pants, heels, pearls and a pocketbook holding a secret.

At 67, Taylor has made a giant leap. The retired principal of two Catholic schools today calls herself America’s only full-time senior cannabis advocate. She’s paid $4,500 a month to tell Grandma and Grandpa and those closest to them that marijuana -- in joints, cookies, just about any form imaginable -- can ease pain and promote sleep and appetite.

She points to her traveling medicine show’s cache of balms, sprays, tinctures, ointments and salves, all infused with cannabis.

“Sometimes you need just a little,” she tells 15 Rotarians gathered for coffee and eggs at the Lone Tree Golf Course in Antioch, California. Everything she’s brought this morning can be used by the elderly to make life better, she says, holding tubes of cream.

Marijuana, tea, dope, herb, grass, pot -- a weed by any other name still conjures evil for many in the plus-65 set. Taylor says her generation was scared stiff by the 1936 classic “Reefer Madness,” and is in desperate need of her message.

She goes to nursing homes, assisted living complexes, senior centers and health fairs. If it would help, she’d take her crusade to the opening of an envelope.

“Our seniors are our forgotten ones,” Taylor says. “Just give them a pill or whatever. They’re going to die anyway. That’s the attitude I’m fighting.”

Marijuana Dispensary

Cracking the Rotary took some doing. For two years, she tried chapters in and around her stomping grounds of Oakland and got the brush. She persisted because, man, if the Rotarians said yes, she’d have the ear of mainstream America.

Taylor works for Harborside Health Center in Oakland, which bills itself as the world’s largest medical marijuana dispensary. It has 150,000 registered patients and gross annual revenues of $25 million, with a modern-looking and closely supervised retail operation. Five years ago, founder Steve DeAngelo decided that for the elderly to accept marijuana as medicine, get themselves California’s doctor-authorized card and shop at places like his, they’d need coaxing.

When he met Taylor, he knew she had the passion and the wardrobe. DeAngelo’s look? Decidedly un-Rotarian. He wears two ponytails behind each ear. In a website photo, co-founder David Wedding dress -- yes, the “d” is lowercase -- sports a ZZ Top beard and purple hat.

“Sue bridges the gap for us,” DeAngelo said.

Grandmother of Two

And if her wardrobe doesn’t do the trick, her resume just might. Six of her 18 years in education were spent as a principal. In those days, she railed against marijuana and threatened to call the police on her own three sons if it ever showed up in the house.

“If you had told me I’d be promoting cannabis someday,” Taylor tells Rotarians, “I would have said you’ve been smoking too much.”

The grandmother of two starts each morning with a kale-spinach smoothie and occasionally takes an edible non-psychoactive form of cannabis for back pain. She says she’s never smoked it.

It’s the kind of detail she peppers throughout her speeches, stories from her own life.

Growing Up Poor

She grew up poor in San Mateo, California, the seventh of 12 children of African-American and Creole parents. One detail she doesn’t drop on her audience: She met her best friend, Sonia Long, way back in the seventh grade and they stayed close through boyfriends, husbands, kids.

After high school, Taylor went to junior college, then to San Francisco State, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, and began teaching.

In 1971, she married an electrical contractor. The couple built a home in Oakland Hills. The neighborhood was upper middle class, with manicured lawns and boats parked in the driveways.

“We had the perfect American family life,” she said after her talk. “We were the Huxtables.”

Perfect, that is, until she and her husband separated in 2005 and he moved back to his home state of Alabama.

A year later, Taylor sold the house, for $800,000. “I looked around and thought these people died a long time ago,” she said. “They just hadn’t been buried yet.”

Universal Energy

She moved to Atlanta and earned a certificate as a metaphysical minister. No longer a practicing Catholic, she nevertheless felt more spiritual, tapping a universal energy she calls God and dreaming of a day she’d open a holistic health center.

In 2009, her oldest, Jamaal, called from back home with a stunning suggestion for funding her center. Getting licensed as a medical marijuana dispensary would generate profits and help cover other expenses.

“I sent this boy to Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade and to college,” she tells the Rotary Club. “I done all this and here he calls me and tells me he wants to sell weed?”

She hurried back to California, not with enthusiasm but dread. “I thought I was losing him to drugs,” she says.

She began researching marijuana’s medicinal effects when she learned her best friend, Sonia, had developed a fast-moving pancreatic cancer. In early December of that year, Sonia told Taylor that her aunt had suggested a cannabis cookie for her pain. Sonia said no.

Black Pocketbook

“I don’t put drugs in my body,” she said even as morphine coursed through her bloodstream. Taylor wasn’t sure what she thought about marijuana, but she knew the morphine was turning her friend into a zombie.

In a rare lucid moment for Sonia, Taylor took her out of the nursing home on a shopping spree. In Nordstrom, Sonia bought Taylor a black pocketbook. Sonia died the next month, in January 2010, at age 63. Taylor never mentions it in her speech, but she takes the pocketbook with her for strength and inspiration on important days like this, her first Rotary Club appearance.

After Sonia was gone, Taylor dove deeper into the research. She and her son had gone as far as applying for a dispensary license. The project ended when county supervisors voted to ban such facilities. For Taylor, it was only the beginning. She began volunteer work for Harborside before being hired in 2011, meeting elderly cancer patients who testified to marijuana’s good effects. She thought of Sonia.

Helping People

Now she’s convinced the cookie would have made her friend more available to loved ones in her final days. “It would have kept her present,” she said. “The morphine kept her dead.”

Taylor had come full circle since her principal days.

“I became a believer,” she said, and finally understood “why I’m here.” Once she helped children. Now she helps people on the other end of life.

“It’s the same job, don’t you see?” she says. “This is what I was meant to do. I’m livin’ the dream.”

Back in front of the Rotarians, she clenches her fists and says she’s an aging senior who doesn’t want to end up on 20 pharmaceutical drugs. “In my opinion, those are the real drugs,” she says.

Balms, Creams

With the variety of cannabis available, Taylor says, people don’t have to smoke it and they don’t have to feel a “high” using it. She heads behind the small wooden dais to her balms, creams and sprays.

“I brought some samples,” she says, “not for you to try,” rather to get a sense of what they look like.

“Does anyone have a question?” she says.

A lawyer in the audience says he represented a city that wanted to license a growing facility and he got a letter from the local district attorney threatening him with prison time. There are still contradictory messages sent, Taylor says. While California allows certain marijuana enterprises, it’s still not legal by federal law.

Another man wants to know why drug companies haven’t jumped in. If marijuana is so good, surely they see a chance to profit. Taylor tells him companies are doing some work but progress is slow.

“Look, I’m not trying to convince you to use cannabis,” she concludes. “I just want you to get the education. I care. I just care.”

The warm applause makes her smile. She packs up her samples and reaches for her black pocketbook.

Outside, Taylor is asked why she’s so committed to the cause.

“See this pocketbook?” she says, her tears spilling freely.

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