No More Pain for Marla James, Huntington Beach Heroine.

You don’t remember. Look at you. You’re so young. But it wasn’t long ago in OC, or everywhere, that you could go to jail for pot, even if you really, medically, needed it, a fact which was disputed by authorities. And not so long ago, Marla James, who passed away a few weeks ago, fought for your rights. And as that sort of thing should be done – with high good humor and no fear.

Oh, you say you remember? Well, remember that 2015 Santa Ana police raid on cannabis collective Sky High Holistic, where the cops thought they had first destroyed the surveillance system, but then got caught on film acting like cruel fools & vandals by a second, hidden surveillance system? If you don’t remember that, you should catch up on itthree of the cops got fired.

Anyway, remember how one female cop was asked by a partner, about an uncooperative female paraplegic worker there, “Did you punch that one-legged old benita?” and she famously responded, “I felt like kicking her in the fucking nub.” Well the “benita” with the “nub” was Marla.

The late, lamented OC Weekly used to write about Marla regularly; shortly before that raid, Nick Schou wrote a profile on her, beginning:

When somebody writes the book on how Orange County became the biggest battleground in the war on medical marijuana in California, there should be an entire chapter on just one person: Marla James. She may no longer lead the Orange County chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest national group advocating for the rights of medical-marijuana smokers – she left that position after refusing to increase membership dues – but James remains one of the most passionate and articulate agitators in the movement.

An “entire chapter,” Nick? Well, let’s see what I can do…

Born 1961 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Marla’s family came out to Fountain Valley in the 70s when her dad got one of those aerospace jobs, and she went to high school there. They say she sang like an angel in those days.

After high school Marla went to work, first for the Westminster Mall Radio Shack, and then for Thomas Brothers Maps until the strain became too much for her eyes, as you can imagine. But then she created the distribution company Ceil Kirby Maps, which she grew into the largest distributor of Thomas Brothers Maps on the West Coast.

Marla became fascinated with paranormal phenomena, and also began singing with the choir at the Church of Religious Science, where in 1990 she met David James of Huntington Beach, the head of “Psychic Exchange” who would become her husband for the next 31 years.

No, they didn’t make a living with their paranormal investigations into haunted houses and the like, although they did help out the late Art Bell with his late-night radio broadcasts. David made a living selling automobile supplies, particularly for sports cars. But one of their favorite memories was covering the 50-year anniversary of Roswell NM’s alien invasion, in 1997.

All Marla’s friends at the Zoom memorial yesterday talked about how generous, kind and caring she was, but also “ferociously intelligent.” They also swore to the very amazing story that these two great fighters against injustice, David and Marla, never once had a fight or argument with each other in 31 years.

Another amazing quality Marla, after a while, was the ability to catch horrible ailments nobody else ever got. She contracted sarcoidosis, which you can look up here. It was the flesh-eating bacteria that was worst, though, followed by a broken ankle which just kept getting infected until leg amputation was necessary. All of this, you can imagine, was severely painful, and the doctors at the time were just happy to prescribe her more and more opiates – OxyContin and hydrocodone – which of course is highly addictive. She told Schou, “I couldn’t even think. I had no life. I was seeing in gray tones. I couldn’t read anything and couldn’t write anything. I just sat in front of my computer and looked at pictures.”

Medical cannabis changed all that, and gave Marla and David a cause to fight for the rest of their lives. (Though David had already campaigned successfully for 1996’s Proposition 215.) Schou again, in 2015:

“She helped organize Orange County’s Hemp Council, which grew into OC NORML, one of the most active chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in the country… It’s difficult to think of any skirmish in the ongoing war over medical marijuana in which James hasn’t played a role, either as a plaintiff in a lawsuit or as a member of a collective speaking to various city council meetings or being chased around in her wheelchair by DEA agents.” 

Actually her friends laugh that she probably got away with a lot, because of her wheelchair, that would have gotten someone else jailed or beaten. She and David stood down the Feds many times when they tried to shut down their Sunset Beach dispensary earlier in the century. Later in 2015 is when the “Nubkicker” incident happened, the SAPD raid on Santa Ana’s Sky High.

What got that female cop so mad at Marla that day was Marla’s refusal to hand over patient records. And Marla and David won that one. The three worst-behaving cops at that raid were fired. And far away in Colorado, a successful “Ganjapreneur” who calls himself “Giddy-Up” watched the videos of the raid, noticed how much duct tape bedecked Marla’s wheelchair, and said to his friends, “I wanna get that lady a new wheelchair.” He discovered it WAS really old, and she could barely keep it charged, so together with pot-loving gangsta rapper “Too Short” he flew to California and gave Marla a great new one! The Cannabist has the story; TMZ has the video, fun to watch.

Of course the health problems besetting Marla James just kept getting worse, and for these last four years she’s been bedridden at home with David, visited bi-weekly by nurses. She’d been vaccinated twice for Covid-19, but also warned that with all her pre-existing conditions a brush with the virus would kill her. And finally last month the Delta variant “broke through,” possibly carried by one of the visiting nurses. No more pain for Marla James.

And we were thinking: Huntington Beach still needs legalized, regulated dispensaries. This could and should be achieved by a by a popular referendum that could be called “The Marla James Initiative.”

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.