Jim Squatter: Testament to the human spirit—and cannabis!

Posted on June 29th, 2011 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , .

Jim SquatterJim Squatter was already a longtime veteran of the squatting, anti-nuclear and anarchist movements before a devastating accident turned him into a medical marijuana user—and a fighter for the right to medicinal cannabis.

After campaigns to shut down the Livermore nuclear weapons lab and the Energy Department’s Nevada Test Site, he found himself working with the Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, or CBC—Berkeley’s first cannabis dispensary—and the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA). Told by doctors he would be confined to a wheelchair for life, he is today walking freely—a testament to the human spirit, and the curative powers of cannabis. Reporter Bill Weinberg spoke with him at a coffee-shop near his home in downtown Berkeley.

For starters, what is your name?

I have two names—Jim Squatter and James Blair, and they’re both now merged together. When I broke my neck I couldn’t keep 'em separate and the feds found out I was one and the same. James Blair is the name that goes on the official documents. My friends all know me as Jim Squatter, tho.

Tell me about your work with Americans for Safe Access.

Since I started, my goal has been to build dispensaries, train people how to grow, and give ‘em legal training. ASA went around to virtually every early dispensary and gave trainings on what we termed "Know Your Rights"—which is really just, when the arrest happens, shut the fuck up, don't say a goddam thing until you’ve seen your attorney.

I heard you were also dispatched to Montana to try to get things going there.

Yeah, well I dispatched myself, basically. I have friends who live up there. The [2004 state medical marijuana] law had passed, but nobody had done anything for two and a half years. So I told my friends in Missoula, "OK, I'll come up."

The problem was, I was busted by the Emeryville city police, who were called in by the building manager. He had already been told by my attorney what the deal was, but they decided to push for a marijuana prosecution. I beat it medical grounds, because it was a state case. Then I sued the city of Emeryville and settled for $15,000. But then I knew that I couldn't grow anymore or start a dispensary in the Bay Area. So I decided, "OK, fuck it. I'm gonna leave the state of California, hidden." So I went in a friend's car to a regional Rainbow Gathering in Montana, and left in a different friend's car, and ended up in Missoula. So, I ditched 'em.

I started working to build up the scene in Missoula. And I guess Missoula hadn't had a radical for a while. I got there and set up a table with literature about medical marijuana, and the cops said, "No, no, you can't do that, we'll arrest you for that." And I went, "Well, I'm not really prepared for an arrest today. Hey, I'll tell you what. We're gonna do this again at both our convenience. I’m gonna call you, and I'm gonna say I'm gonna be at this corner at a specific time. You can count on that."

So I got in touch with the Wobblies. I’m an old Wobbly. And the first free speech fight ever in the United State started in Montana, with the Wobblies in 1909! I was like, "That was almost exactly a hundred years ago! This is gonna be great!" So I just put out a blast, I said, "I need freight-train riders, Wobblies, anybody—to Missoula! There’s gonna be a free speech fight!"

I organized and I talked around town. And we set up a table. The cops saw us from around a hundred feet away. It was only me and another guy, but they had gotten some intelligence about who I was and what I was about, and how bad it would be to fuck with me on this. So they just decided, "No, no, we're not gonna do anything. It’s now legal."

Do you want to tell me how you became a medicinal user?

I broke my neck in December of 1994 and was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. It was a diving accident in Central America. I was in Belize. And I'll tell you, it did not look good. I was taken to a jungle clinic, where a doctor eventually showed up and poked and prodded me and said, "Can you feel this, can you move that?" I said no. "You're paralyzed." He was really smart, I could tell. [Laughs.]

Finally, they had a priest come in to try to give me last rights. I tried to spit at him. We didn't get along.

Where in Belize was this?

In San Ignacio. I was diving into the Mopan River. It was near the end of the rainy season, and I’d swum in this hole where I knew it was deep enough to dive. And I was standing there in this tree getting ready to dive, when a bunch of villagers came along. And the Catholic Church has infected them, so they feel shame when they’re naked. And I was naked and I didn't want to embarrass them, so I quick turned about 90% and dove in a direction I hadn't swum in, and hit a sandbar in eighteen inches of water. A head-first dive. That was that.

So you were rescued and taken to a clinic...

After I got hypothermic from being in the river, they knew I had to get out. So they went into the village and dismantled the altar from the church—the only large fucking flat board in the village! So they put the board from the altar underneath me and raised me up. Now one of the side effects in males of a broken neck you've probably heard of is priapism... Like guys who get hanged. You've heard that? It turns out it’s true! So I was raised from the river on the church altar with a raging hard-on..! Wouldn't wanna embarrass ‘em! [Laughs.] Uh, yeah!

Eventually you were medevaced to Florida. How did that happen?

After I tried to spit at the priest, they decided I was stabilized enough that they were gonna transport me into Belize City. And when I got there, they took an X-ray and showed it to me. I was missing one of my vertebrae. It was gone. You could see spinal chord naked, like a string, and my head was the fucking balloon!

Fortunately, my friends in the states went to work and got my ass the fuck out of there.

So they medevaced you to...

To Tampa Bay. I would up in Bayfront Medical Center, in St. Petersburg. I got decompression surgery and then they put me in a medical coma. When I came to, I was in a mini ICU. I had been in the main ICU, but I have no memory of any of that. They told me I behaved badly. [Laughs]

My friends had started to fly in. The first one to arrive, every time I saw him for the first two days I was like, "It's so good to see you! When did you get here?”" It was like the first time I'd seen him—I wasn't encoding memory yet.

Then I started encoding memory. But I was contorting uncontrollably. I was on the maximum dosage of Baclofen, the pharmaceutical anti-spastic. My friends had taken me out of the hospital into this courtyard. And they wanted me to smoke pot. I was completely skeptical. I had just rehabed my lungs so I could breathe on my own. But they were like, "Dude, you've smoked pot before. It's no big deal." So I was like, "OK, fuck it, I'll humor these bastards. I'll try some pot."

They held the pipe to my lips, and I inhaled. And as I'm exhaling, my body starts to relax. I'd been tense and contorting, and my whole body relaxed—for the first time since I’d broke my neck. All the muscle contortions stopped. And I was like, "OK. So... I’m a believer."

You continued to smoke in the hospital?

Yeah, they would sneak me out a little bit. But then they arranged to medevac me back to California. I went to Dr. Frank Lucido, who is one of the major medical marijuana physicians. I knew him from the Nevada Test Site. He was the camp physician when we set up our big encampments there. And he volunteered to be my physician.

Later, I began to regain function. I started to slowly build back the ability to move and to walk. It took two and a half years, all the way.

And this was contrary to the original prognosis...

Yeah. The original prognosis had been the I would never move a fucking thing. I was supposed to be in an electric wheelchair for life.

To what do you attribute the fact that you're now walking?

You know, it's complex. Some of it is physical, and some of is... maybe spiritual, even. I think the fact that I dove into a river and stayed in until I was hypothermic helped cut down swelling. That was helpful. The fact that I'd smoked pot twenty minutes before I'd broke my neck—that was probably helpful.


Yes. I do believe there are neuroprotective properties of marijuana. How far do those neuroprotective properties go? They don't really know. That's why researchers are interested in me.

And you’d say that cannabis played a significant role in your recovery?

It at least enabled me to deal with the spasms. You see, when you’re muscles are all firing simultaneously, you can't really move at will. That's part of the problem with a spinal injury—for the brain to get a message to the proper muscle. Marijuana helped me do that.

Was it effective against the pain?

No. [Laughs.] I kept taking pharmaceuticals—looking for ways to knock out the pain. Baclofen, Dantrium, Carbamazepine. But the problem with being on those drugs is that you don’t get to use your brain for anything like...thought.  About two or three years post-accident, I finally got rid of all the pharmaceutical drugs. Now, I just smoke pot.

When I wake up the morning, I still contort around. I have to organize the muscles to get out of bed, stumble over and do a bong hit, and then... [sighs] OK, now I can function again.

Tell me a little bit about your life before the accident.

I’m originally from outside of Detroit. I was adopted. And I had some serious difficulties with my family... to the point that I started living on my own at the age of twelve. And I spent the next year and a half incarcerated. I and closed that motherfucking institution down. That’s where I learned organizing.

When did you get to the Bay Area?

I got here when I was 22. I’d been squatting in Detroit, and decided that freezing my balls off in an abandoned building sucked, and it was time to leave.

In the summer of '82 I went to the Rainbow Gatherings in Idaho. I went on a cross-country peace march straight from the Gathering. We marched to Bangor, Washington, where the first Trident nuclear sub was coming in. Five-hundred miles with a bunch of Buddhist monks and grand old freaks.

And when we get there, they tell us, "You haven't prayed with us"—cuz it was all run by Christians—"so you can't get busted." And I'm like, "You're telling me I can't stop the war because I don't believe in Jesus? I'm gonna tear this movement up!" So I came down the San Francisco and smashed the strangle-hold of the Christians on the anti-nuclear movement.

So you started squatting in San Francisco and got involved in the Livermore Action Group...

Right. They felt that non-violence involved praying, sitting down, and waiting to be hauled away. But I was like, "What about mobile tactics? Keeping this place closed as long as we can!" They were like, "That's violence." I said, "No, violence is violence. This is just having a good time!"

This was the mid-'80s and your accident was in the mid-'90s. So what happened in those intervening ten years?

Well, we shut down the Nevada Test Site. Seeds of Peace was formed as a logistical group that helped other organizations do really big public events. We provided portable kitchens, shitters, water, trailers. So we could set up a city for ten thousand anywhere. And at the Test Site, we worked with American Peace Test. And we were successful—we took control of the test site.

We disrupted their last test in '92. By this time, glasnost was happening, so some Soviet generals came over to witness one of our tests—and they got to see us dancing on Ground Zero rather than a test!

And the Soviets' test site in Kazakhstan had already been shut down by fifty-thousand people storming it—which we helped inspire.

So now you're living in Berkeley...

Uh-huh. Causing trouble here. Although I might be moving to Washington soon, to start a new dispensary, on a different model.

Marijuana is a fairly easy-to-produce item. There are some skills that are needed, but they can be taught fairly quickly. The economy's for shit. People are desperate for work. So everybody's growing pot, and the price keeps going down. All agricultural commodities have gone through a cycle of boom and bust.

So you're anticipating a bust.

Yeah. It will become so not profitable that people will start leaving—and then we'll go back into another boom cycle. The federal government is looking for a model as a way out of prohibition. If the only model they see out there is the alcohol model, which guarantees that somebody is going to profit and somebody is going to be a consumer, that's what they’re gonna go for. I don't want to see another big industry. There's got to be an alternative.  

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the April issue of Kush Magazine

Photo by imdaphne1.


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