Ann Lee, marijuana legalization activist

Image: Todd Spoth

Ann Lee, an 85-year-old mayor’s daughter from Ponchatoula, Louisiana, possesses carefully coiffed silver hair, a gentle southern accent, a steel-trap mind, and ardent Republican politics. Seated beside her husband Bob Lee at the table in their sunny Meyerland dining room, its walls adorned with GOP and Texas Longhorns posters, she sips her coffee, looking for all the world like a conservative member of the Junior League. 

There on the table in front of her, however, is something unexpected: a neat pile of books and pamphlets supporting marijuana legalization. Two years ago, Lee and her courtly, soft-spoken, 90-year-old husband started Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), on the premise that, as she puts it, “prohibition is downright un-Republican.” 

How did a nice old couple from Meyerland end up like this, you ask? It is not because they are tokers. No, the Lees grew up in the era of Reefer Madness, when almost everyone considered marijuana a dangerous drug—a gateway to criminal activity, heroin abuse, madness. But then, in 1990, their son Richard—a rock and roll roadie—fell off a lighting rig in New Jersey while setting up the stage for an Aerosmith concert. The accident left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. During his long convalescence, the then-28-year-old suffered from painful back spasms, eventually coming across an article in the hospital library touting marijuana as a beneficial treatment for the condition. Richard smoked some and his pain went away. 

“He looked at us—it was August of 1990—and he said, ‘Mama and Daddy, marijuana is good for me,’” remembers Ann. “And I didn’t want to hear that. Our initial idea was how horrible it was, but then when we did the research and the prayer, and we found out that our government had actually lied to us. My idea was, how terrible it was that people couldn’t use it. They needed it.”

Still, the couple’s conversion wasn’t immediate. “We didn’t speak for a year or so,” Richard tells us later over the phone from California. His parents would seem to be the least likely people to spearhead GOP opposition to marijuana prohibition in his hometown, and yet here they are. The only word for it is “mind-blowing,” he says.

America’s war on drugs is such a drain on our tax dollars, Ann Lee will tell you, it borders on the fiscally irresponsible. Asset forfeiture—wherein police seize the personal property of suspected drug felons—is downright Stalinist, she says. And the drug war itself? Well, that’s the most blatant instance of state-sanctioned racism since Jim Crow. 

“It has decimated whole black communities by taking away the young men and fathers, and created a whole generation of people with complete distrust of law enforcement,” she says. “I believe the drug war is a major cause of what we are seeing in Ferguson. There is no reason for a young black to trust a policeman, is there?”

As for Richard, he’s gone from owning a hemp clothing store on lower Westheimer to being one of the West Coast’s most prominent legalization advocates, having left town for California following that state’s decriminalization of medical marijuana in 1997. Over the next 10 years, Richard would open a medical dispensary, help pass a ballot measure making marijuana possession the lowest priority for Oakland police, and found Oaksterdam University, a trade school wherein students could learn how to run their own dispensaries. All of which proved lucrative: in 2010, Richard Lee donated around $1.5 million in support of California’s Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana for adult use regardless of medical necessity. The proposal failed but not by much—46 percent of the state’s voters supported it.

“He’s made quite a name for himself,” says his mother proudly. “He did quite well.”

As for Ann and Bob, they supported the cause from the sidelines initially. Then, “two things happened that I think were God-inspired,” she says. First, the couple found itself attracting media attention while campaigning for marijuana legalization with Richard in Oakland. “They thought it was a hoot and a half that his 80-year-old conservative Republican mama was coming out to work on Prop 19,” she laughs. The Oakland Tribune called her Richard’s “secret weapon.”

Second, in 2012, Ann was asked to sit in on a panel at a conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Los Angeles. “Of the five of us, three of us were Republicans. And Richard remembers me coming down to the lobby one day and telling him that I had come up with the idea of RAMP.”

A fixture in Houston GOP circles since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson, Ann Lee also served for 30 years on the Harris County Republican Party’s executive committee, which left her with a Rolodex stuffed with prominent local pachyderms. She started gathering signatures in 2012, and now the very active and lively RAMP Facebook page has 1,905 members.

“Over the last few years, she has really brought focus to bear on the subject,” says Dean Becker, the host of KPFT’s nationally syndicated programs Cultural Baggage and 4:20 Drug War News. According to Becker, Ann makes sure her message gets heard by all the right ears—politically active, churchgoing Republicans like herself, many now or formerly in positions of power locally. At an August gathering of the Pachyderm Club, Becker recalls, “The audience was full of local politicians and judges, many due to the fervor of Ann Lee.”

It’s a fervor that has by now put her at odds with former heroes both earthly and spiritual. She has soured on both of the presidents Bush, she says, thanks to their support of the drug war, and the lifelong staunch Catholic hasn’t stopped there.

Now that Pope Francis has come out against legalization, Richard chuckles, he’s in her sights too. 

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