Sacramento medical-cannabis activist Ryan Landers is Mr. Compassion

Landers helped approve medical pot in 1996 by working to pass Proposition 215. So why is he against Proposition 19’s effort to legalize recreational use?

Ryan Landers pulls a hit off a custom-made bong. He sometimes medicates using this delivery device, which helps when his thyroid is acting up.

Ryan Landers pulls a hit off a custom-made bong. He sometimes medicates using this delivery device, which helps when his thyroid is acting up.

Photo By Mike Iredale

A young woman squeezed into a tight black skirt with the words “indica, sativa, concentrates, clones, edibles” emblazoned on it tiptoes up stairs at an Arden Arcade-area strip mall. On the second-floor terrace, she joins a dozens-strong crowd gathered amid a dense, sour fog of marijuana burn, which steeps in the warm October-evening air. Nearly everyone is smoking, a scene typical of a summertime concert in the park, not a suburban Sacramento shopping center.

Activist Ryan Landers explains that this session is a sort of ritual before the local medical-cannabis community’s annual comedy-night fundraiser. “Who’s getting hurt here?” he asks while smoking a joint. He also reminds that it’s OK to toke, or what patients refer to as “medicate,” in public. And that even Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully herself has given Landers a green light to do so.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Later, inside the Punch Line, local comedian Ngaio Bealum glows onstage in a chartreuse linen blazer. Landers relaxes at a table in the second row, wearing a black Hawaiian button-up adorned with pot leaves instead of palm trees, a far cry from his typical workday uniform of two-piece suits and white-collared shirts. He fiddles with pain patches affixed to the back of his neck, snaps pics with his iPhone 4 and hoots as comics deliver pot-themed punch lines.

“You can’t smoke weed in here,” Bealum reminds the two-thirds-full room. “This is a comedy club, not a movie theater.”

Laughs roll easy with the crowd—that is, until Bealum asks, “How do you feel about Proposition 19?”


The comedian withdraws: “I don’t even want to get into it, because I want to have a good time tonight.”

Yet it’s no joke: Prop. 19, which would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of recreational marijuana for Californians over age 21, has torn apart the Sacramento cannabis community. And Landers’ no-on-19 effort has alienated his oldest pals—the very men and women who fought with him to end medical-marijuana prohibition more than a decade ago.

Proponents argue that Prop. 19 is a once-in-a-lifetime shot at legalization in California. Landers wants to see marijuana allowed, too, but says Prop. 19 will ostracize the sickest and poorest patients.

“The movement is so damned divided,” he bemoans. “I’ve lost a lot of friends.”

But Landers, who’s lived with HIV for more than 15 years, has no choice. Even though he endures unimaginable chronic pain and regularly goes without eating due to unbearable nausea, his own affliction never triumphs empathy for those who are suffering.

“I’d love to stop and enjoy what time I’ve got left,” he confesses, “but as long as patients’ lives are in jeopardy, I have to fight to change that.”

Landers protests—and tokes a doobie—outside the White House.

photo courtesy of RYAN LANDERS

A movement at odds

A perfectly spliced half-moon floats in the sky directly above a bright-red Hilton sign overlooking Business 80. A few blocks north, cars trickle in one by one to River City Phoenix, a dispensary on El Camino Avenue. Most everyone’s late to a 7 p.m. meeting. In fact, it’s nearly 8 o’clock. Landers is last to arrive, grumbling about having to wait hours to get a new prescription, Kadian, a time-released morphine sulfate.

He also concedes, with a smile, that stoners really are never on time.

Inside the dispensary, a coffee table proffers snacks, varying from veggies and dip to pot brownies. A patient pulls a tightly rolled joint out from his sock, sparks it, tokes and shares with the group, seated in a ring. Landers grabs a few whole-wheat crackers and nibbles slowly. He hasn’t eaten all day.

Landers’ adopted son, David, 25, is in town visiting from South Lake Tahoe and joins him at the meeting. At age 15, David was nearly expelled from school for lawfully medicating with cannabis instead of ADD drugs. Landers intervened, kept him in class, and David graduated high school the next year. When David became an adult, Landers legally adopted him. He has another adopted son, also an ADD kid, who now works in Nevada City. Landers adores his two granddaughters.

The Sac Patients group meets weekly during the election season. Joy Cole, a short-haired, noodle-thin lung-cancer survivor, leads the get-togethers. She also hosts an activist Internet show at Some patients drive in from as far away as Placer County and El Dorado Hills. There’s even a newbie this week—and he’s uneasy having a reporter present.

“He’s writing a story about Ryan,” Cole says.

“Who is Ryan?” the patient asks.

“Ryan has been on the front lines fighting for cannabis for years,” she explains.

The patient looks at Landers: “So, can you talk to my mother?”

Only recently was Landers’ own mother convinced as to the merits of medical cannabis, after her physician of 12 years praised its use. “Then my mom, for two days, couldn’t stop talking about that,” Landers remembers. “She was just beside herself that her doctor thought it was OK, what her son had fought to create.”

Memorabilia and photos decorate Landers’ Midtown office, where he spends most of his days working as an activist for medical-cannabis patients’ rights.

Photo By Mike Iredale

The stars first aligned for “the movement”—a term Landers and others use to describe the O.G. medical-cannabis activists—in 1996: Californians approved Proposition 215 with a 55.6 percent majority. Landers was spokesman for the campaign.

On election night that November, the 215 crew gathered at a local pizza parlor with members of the California Nurses Association, who’d lost all their bills but were happy for the stoners. The green 24-year-old Landers, who’d just voted for the first time ever—“I was told that’s how they get you for jury duty”—was suddenly the movement’s fresh face, along with another 20-something named Jeff Jones.

“Jeff and I were the babies of the movement,” Landers remembers. “We were the youngest two leaders for quite some time.”

But today, Landers and Jones, chancellor of Oaksterdam University’s Los Angeles branch, are on opposite sides of the Prop. 19 battle. In fact, Landers will debate Jones’ wife, Dale Skye Jones, who also works for Oaksterdam mastermind Richard Lee. Chris Conrad, a friend whose cannabis activist bible Hemp: Lifeline to the Future first introduced Landers to the cause, is also a major Yes on 19 advocate.

“I really don’t want to debate some of my friends,” he says, “but they’re going to be the key people to debate.”

Even in Sacramento, the medical-cannabis scene is altered and at odds. “We used to have a lot tighter community before,” explains Landers, who was awarded Sacramento activist of the decade in 2005 by local cannabis-dispensary owners, “but when Obama became president, it turned on a dime.” As an HIV patient, he likens Sacramento’s changing cannabis landscape to when CARES, or the Center for AIDS Research, Education & Services, first received its influx of federal money. “People started calling them ‘CAREless’”—though now things at CARES are “much improved,” he says.

As state director of Californians for Compassionate Use, Landers works pro bono, advocating for patients’ rights. “I don’t like asking for money for what I do,” but he places donation containers for his cause at local pot clubs.

And although cannabis supply and demand is greater than ever, the contributions are at a low. In fact, Landers recently noticed that many of his donation containers have gone missing altogether.

Landers—not frail but on the thin side of 160 pounds, always upbeat and extremely conversational—is like his favorite cannabis strain, White Widow. Its nugs are small, tight and possess a distinctive flavor. But the actual White Widow strain went out of circulation more than a decade ago: Amateurs crossed the plant to fatten up its buds to create a more lucrative yield, and the pure strain vanished.

“I should focus on money, too, but I’m trying to help people,” says Landers, who barely made his rent this October. “But part of the problem is I have a hard time asking for help.”

Every six weeks, Landers receives up to a dozen trigger-point shots in knots on his back. He says he looks forward to this relief—even though, if done incorrectly, the pain can leave him bedridden.

photo courtesy of RYAN LANDERS

World of pain

Born in the Central Valley, Landers grew up with his single mom and siblings in what he says was a “crazy” family. By sixth grade, he was jumping from home to home, living with various relatives, even his grandma’s sister—from Alaska to Texas and back to California.

As a kid, Landers admired his grandfather, a highly respected doctor. He shares memories of watching Grandpa care for, and sometimes lose, sick patients. “It took him three times to retire,” Landers remembers, “because he kept trying to help. That’s where I got my compassion from.”

Landers’ first memory of marijuana was as a 12-year-old: An elder neighbor with glaucoma had plants. The feds seized them—and the man’s home, too.

By 16, he was head of the household: His mom had just given birth to his youngest brother, and Landers left independent study to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This was short-lived; soon after, his life “fell apart,” and he moved to Sacramento.

Landers discovered his HIV as part of a routine medical test. He was processing the titles of wrecked and stolen vehicles and had gotten blood work done for the gig. The year was 1995. He says he likely acquired the virus from a tattoo, an infected needle. “But how do you know?”

After beginning various medications, he soon couldn’t hold down food. Or garner an appetite. “It doesn’t matter if I go days without eating,” Landers says. “It doesn’t matter if I exhaust myself. I don’t get the feeling of hunger.”

His nausea is debilitating. New medications are unknowns that can leave him bedridden. This past winter, he dropped off to nearly 125 pounds, vomiting daily from November to February. He doesn’t have a favorite food and says the only meal he can truly sit down and enjoy lately isn’t the healthiest: chicken enchiladas from an El Forastero taquería near his north Sacramento home.

The pain isn’t loyal to his stomach.

He’s had shingles of the brain, which crawled up his neck and attacked his central nervous system. Every day, his eyes feel like they’re being “squeezed by pliers.” He never sleeps through the night and wakes up with either unbearable back pain or razor-sharp migraines. OxyContin, Norco, Percocet, morphine, methadone—they don’t work, but are on call nevertheless.

Every six weeks, Landers has a friend to drive him to a preferred doctor in San Andreas, where he receives what are called “trigger-point shots” directly into the hub of swollen knobs that develop all over his back. “Nobody can believe I look forward to this,” he jokes. There’s photos on his iPhone: A 6-inch needle plunges into knotted flesh.

For a guy who smokes upward of a quarter-ounce of cannabis each day, Landers is remarkably lucid. The cannabidiol, or CBD, in his pot helps dull the extreme pain and assuages nausea. But Landers says he no longer gets high from the THC. To be sure, his eyes are never bloodshot.

On mornings when he can’t rise and shine, he works at computer next to the couch, getting up only to feed his parrot and tend to his cat. He has a PlayStation 3 to pass the time, doesn’t watch TV but enjoys movies. When he is out and about, you’ll often see him adjusting Lidocaine patches on the back of his neck, the same local anesthesia that dentists use to numb a patient’s jaw.

Landers says, before all this, he used to question people’s pain—and the vast pharmacopoeia of drugs that ease suffering. “Now, I understand patients’ pain all too much,” he says, “and that’s why I’ll go to the mat for them.”

The founding fathers (left to right): Ryan Landers, John Entwistle, Anna Boyce, “Brownie” Mary Rathburn and Dennis Peron at the attorney general’s building downtown on September 29, 1995—the day Proposition 215 was filed.

photo courtesy of RYAN LANDERS

Fifteen years of fame

Trickles of sunlight sneak into Landers’ office, a carpeted room on the second floor of a Midtown craftsman that also houses medical-cannabis dispensary A Therapeutic Alternative. The owner, Jeanne Larsson, donates the space, and Landers keeps it dark because bright sun gives him migraines.

He is seated behind an L-shaped wood desk wearing a gray suit, white shirt and Bluetooth earpiece. His hair is buzzed close, and a wiry goatee is scarcely visible on his chin. He occasionally smokes a bowl—filled with a blend of cannabis strains, hash and kief—while chatting. Mementos cover the walls, nearly two decades of memories and accomplishments. And struggle.

He points out that it is the 15th anniversary of Proposition 215: On September 29 in 1995, he rallied at the Capitol with Dennis Peron, Anna Boyce and other medical-cannabis founding fathers. They announced 215, which at this time was called the Compassionate Use Act, on the west steps, then marched to the Department of Justice headquarters on I Street. “And we smoked a really good joint on the way over,” Landers remembers, “so we all stunk when we got to the [attorney general]’s office.”

Good medical cannabis was hard to come by in Sacramento during this time, according to Landers. And cultivating was more than risky. Still, he was one of the first to appear on TV with his own pot plant, smiling as he committed a felony. “They could have busted down my door and arrested me,” he says. They didn’t—but it still wasn’t a green light to grow.

Landers pushes the envelope. Last fall, he bumped into U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren and introduced himself. “I know who you are,” the congressman replied. “We used to do the news opposite each other for quite a number of years.” It’s true: Back in the late ’90s, Landers would get stoned inside the Talk 650 KSTE studios while Lungren debated him via satellite. He’s debated sheriff candidate Jim Cooper on News Call Live, too—and probably stoned.

In January 1997, Peron and Landers announced plans to open Sacramento’s first medical-cannabis dispensary. Within days, City Councilman Robbie Waters was urging fellow council members to crack down. Waters won; efforts to start the Capitol City Cannabis Buyers Club were foiled. But this failure taught Landers a lesson: “They’d listen to you a lot more if they knew you couldn’t make money at it.”

Inside his office, Landers flips on the computer monitor and plays a photo slide show. In one shot, he’s on C-SPAN testifying at the state Capitol. Another, he’s smoking a joint in front of the Placer County sheriff’s office. On his desk rests a thick photo album of news clippings and oddities from his life’s work. Flipping the pages is like reading the children’s book What Good Luck! What Bad Luck!

What good luck: Sacramentans organize the first local medical-cannabis dispensary out of a home in Citrus Heights.

What bad luck: Landers is arrested on 10th and K streets during Thursday Night Market for smoking a 0.04-gram joint. The district attorney’s head of major narcotics testifies in his case.

More bad luck: Thieves invade Landers grow spot in Alkali Flat and steal not only his cannabis but that of dozens of local patients as well.

Whoa, lucky: His insurer writes a $9,750 check less than a week after the theft—only the second case of cannabis being covered by insurance in the history of the United States at the time.

Landmark luck: Landers assists then-state Sen. John Vasconcellos in writing Senate Bill 420, a breakthrough law that implements the state’s medical-marijuana program, which Gov. Gray Davis signs just hours before leaving office.

Bad-luck bonanza: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoes the 420 cleanup bill. Landers files bankruptcy in 2005. His mom nearly succumbs to West Nile virus the next year. A home intruder in Antelope brandishes a gun in Landers’ face, fires shots and steals his caregiver’s medicine. The government taps his phones. The feds raid local clubs, such as River City Wellness and Capitol Alternatives. Sheriffs illegally burn down his backyard crop near Watt Avenue.

And patients, friends, pass away.

New patients phone Landers each week, looking for help, anything, sometimes desperate. He advises in situations such as custody cases, because lawyers often leverage medical cannabis against a parent. And he assists cancer and AIDS patients in connecting with compassion programs, which provide them with free, high-grade bud. He even educates law enforcement, such as in El Dorado County, on medical-cannabis rights so that so that patients aren’t persecuted.

But Landers’ legacy is the Sacramento medical-cannabis dispensaries, to which he serves as unofficial ambassador in an attempt to have them “build up a neighborhood reputation” of being complaint and crime free.

“We had to figure out a way to create real statistics, and the way to do that was to keep [clubs] off the news and to keep it quiet,” he says, sharing his strategy. It took longer than ever imagined, but it worked: On November 9, the city council will likely approve Sacramento’s first medical-cannabis club ordinance—nearly 15 years in the making.

The breakthrough comes, of course, with bad luck attached: A city business permit, what with its nearly $75,000 price tag, isn’t feasible for many of the mom-and-pop, friends-of-the-movement dispensaries that stuck their necks out in the beginning.

It’s a never-ending, increasingly complex battle. Landers can hardly keep track of all the dispensaries popping up. Shady club owners rat out other club owners to city officials or code enforcement. And measures such as Prop. 19 or Rancho Cordova’s “discriminatory” cannabis tax will only up the ante in 2011.

“I’ve done my 15 years. I’ve had my 15 years of fame,” he says. “I need someone to step up and help.”

It’s urgent: Months ago, due to lack of money, Landers quit taking his anti-retroviral HIV medications. “Everybody thinks I look better,” he says, “but yeah, that’s because I’m not poisoning myself.”

“I’m so scared of not getting back on them in time.”

Landers comments on the forthcoming city of Sacramento pot-club ordinance at a City Hall meeting last week.


19 reasons

It’s Monday at 5:15 p.m. in Midtown Sacramento. Landers needs to be in Oakland for a Prop. 19 debate by 6:30 p.m. This is the big one he’s talked up for weeks. He blows smoke out the passenger window of a minivan cruising south on 19th Street while friend and Sac Patients Group director Cole drives. Landers jokes that the organizers “should expect me to be late.” Stoner time: Set your watch to it.

Stoner is a term of endearment, however, especially between patients, who bond with an understanding insouciance. Sure, Landers admits that a lot of patients out there are “self-medicating,” or aren’t gravely ill. But even then, he reminds, the plant can’t hurt. He often rattles off his list: Marijuana is safer than alcohol, tobacco, cars, airplanes, salt, butter, soda pop, cell phones, tap water, sushi, roller coasters, candy, suburbia, TV. Than the air we breathe. And on and on.

“The only way it will kill you is a ton would have to hit you and break your neck,” he often says.

Pot activist, horticulture expert and Landers’ friend Ed Rosenthal repeats the same exact phrase at the Mills College Prop. 19 debate that evening. He’s seated at a long table with four other Yes on 19ers. The forum streams live online, so hardly any students show. NPR is in the house, though, as are many aging Walt Whitman types with glorious silver beards.

The Yes on 19 argument is instantly compelling. Panelists refer to the initiative as the “bong rip heard round the world.” They say it will be a domino effect that legalizes cannabis globally. Rosenthal, who concedes that the measure “isn’t the initiative that he wanted,” says he’s voting for it all the same, because he doesn’t want to have to explain years from now why he voted “no” on legalization.

Chris Conrad, Landers’ medical-cannabis-founding-father friend, makes a convincing argument for complementary industries, such as industrial hemp, mass cultivation and medical research. He talks in rapid-fire, classic flack-speak, and dismisses No on 19ers nitpicking: “This is the best thing we can do right now.”

Landers is pro-legalization. “But Prop. 19 is not legalization,” Landers argues. “It says that nowhere in the law.”

He sees 19 only as a threat to patients. Proponents vigorously reject this, but Landers—an armchair legal eagle who has worked on more than a half-dozen Capitol bills—impresses with his comeback. He says there is no language in the measure to ensure that Prop. 215 will remain unchanged.

The tinfoil-hat crowd says this omission is intentional and that Oaksterdam’s Richard Lee—who, like many dispensary owners, has made millions while supposedly operating as a not-for-profit—wants to take away patients’ rights to collectively cultivate large quantities of marijuana. They call 19 the gateway to the corporate-cannabis age.

But Landers, who never raises his voice or veers off-topic, isn’t one for schemes. “It’s going to take away patients’ cultivation rights,” he agrees. “And it’s going to regulate us out of the backyard.”

But patients, not legalization, are his No. 1 priority. He defers to their concerns.

Hecklers hit the roof midway through the debate, though their outbursts don’t match those at a Prop. 19 debate at the Cow Palace last month. Tensions rouse amid panelists, too, both sides calling each other liars, among other less-sophisticated invective.

And perhaps for the first time ever, a major California electoral debate takes place where a majority of participants are stoned.

When it’s all over, Landers swiftly tracks down his pal Conrad. “When this ends, we’ll be friends,” he says, playing peacekeeper.

“You, I believe,” Conrad replies, looking him in the eyes.

After the debate, Rosenthal, wearing Birkenstocks with socks, shares a doobie with friends outside. Does he know Prop. 19 would make consumption in public places illegal? Landers passes him on the way to the minivan but doesn’t say goodbye.

Still, they’re buds. And it was Landers, who had connections with then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office, who snuck Rosenthal up to the 17th floor of the Department of Justice headquarters to obtain an amicus brief during the first “Feds v. Ed” trial earlier this decade. While up there overlooking downtown Sacramento, Landers pointed out to Rosenthal his old grow spot on 14th and G streets, where he’d cultivated during the height of the DEA-raid era. Unlike Rosenthal, he escaped trial.

Back at the minivan, Landers sparks a joint. A gentle sweat coats his brow, and the parking-lot lights emphasize his protruding cheekbones. He’s replaying the debate, the movement, his old friends—whom he “commends.”

“You think I want to fuck it up for everybody?” he lets out, rocking side to side while blowing smoke into the cloudless sky. “My goals are for the sick. That’s something I cannot compromise.”

There’s no loss for words on the ride home through the East Bay and back to Sacramento. Landers chats about someday going to lobbying school. Or whether the city of Sacramento should get into the cultivation biz with him. And he wonders, if Prop. 19 passes, who will be the first local dispensary owner to go recreational—even though he’s warned many not to for legal reasons.

A stop at the In-N-Out Burger in Fairfield is a welcome one. Landers, who’s had but a half-bottle of chocolate milk all day, is finally ready to eat. He and Cole medicate out front while the double-doubles grill. Soon, an actual meal. He praises the chocolate shake and finishes more than half the burger. It’s not the healthiest meal in the world, but it’s a compromise. He takes the fries to go.

High spirits

Back at the Punch Line comedy benefit, Landers’ son David, who’s in town visiting, listens as a comedian cracks wise that Prop. 19 will turn street dealers into dinosaurs. “What a shame,” he kids: Stoners of the future will never know what it’s like to baby-sit a dealer’s child while they “run a few quick errands”—until 2 a.m.

The jokes end and a deejay bumps favorites, including Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.” Everyone mingles—perhaps for the last time as a strictly medical industry. Landers and his son hug old friends and pose for a few photos. One picture bridges the Prop. 19 divide: David, who resides in South Lake Tahoe and can’t vote on the measure; comedian Bealum, who, as publisher of West Coast Cannabis, is a “yes” man; Amanda Whittemore, a svelte and tanned local representative for Americans for Safe Access, which has taken a neutral stance; and of course Landers, a firm “no.”

At first, Prop. 19 led handily in the polls. Today, heading into election week, the race is a tossup. Landers says the more people learn about the initiative, the more doubt lingers. He wants to free the plant as much as anyone, but 19 isn’t his way.

Outside, Landers burns one of his caramel-hued joints before heading off to an afterparty at the Red Lion Hotel. He’s pleased by the evening’s goodwill. “I’m glad I lived long enough to hear Robbie Waters say he supports medical marijuana,” Landers shares. “Or to hear Jan Scully say she supports the Compassionate Use Act.” He’s never one for platitudes or pep-talk anthems, but tonight’s show has him in high spirits.

“They can strike us, and I don’t care how bad it hurts, but they will never hold us down.”