By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City News Editor
J. Craig Canada has had quite a life.
After moving from rural Alabama to California in the 1980s, Canada suffered a severe depression that left him disabled.
He took Prozac for years, but one day, prompted by an outburst of rage at his alarm clock, he flushed the pills down the toilet.
After more trial-and-error with prescription drugs, he tried marijuana. Gone were the electric nerve shocks, manic episodes, and debilitating depression.
While cannabis stabilized his health, a new set of woes emerged in Canada’s life. Raided by the federal government and evicted by two landlords for growing marijuana, he found himself homeless for three years. He was denied disability and housing, he says, because he is a medical marijuana patient.
Now living at the Tannery Housing Project, Canada made a bid for the Santa Cruz City Council. He didn’t win a seat, but hasn’t given up on Santa Cruz.
When did your disabilities start to affect your life?
I was in San Francisco for 18 years, and I did well. I believe around 1986, I was having problems with depression, which is something that I’ve had problems with all my life. I was prescribed Prozac and I had a horrible reaction to it. I experienced most of the side effects you hear about. … It’s a horrible drug, all the SSRIs are. It’s addictive, for one thing. [After I threw it out] I suffered a severe depression, paralyzing. Subsequent to that, I was diagnosed as bipolar, which is something that happens if you are not bipolar and you take these drugs.
How has marijuana helped?
I discovered that marijuana worked where everything else had failed for my depression. Also for stabilizing my mood swings. I discovered that marijuana was medicine. See, I didn’t think marijuana would actually work when I started using it. I thought ‘I’m screwed, I might as well enjoy myself.’ And then I found that it worked for me, that it made me functional.
But you’ve experienced legal problems because you medicate with marijuana?
In 1996, I was arrested. In 1998, they denied me disability because I told them that the only medicine I used was marijuana.
In San Bernadino, I was raided on Thanksgiving. A friend of mine had to pay $10,000 to get me out of jail. My landlady evicted me. They had taken my computer and kept it for six months thinking that I was a big time wheeler-dealer. I got to a place in Brookdale, but the guy evicted me two weeks later. So I find myself homeless. The homeless services here refused me housing. And they said, “Well, are you willing to give up your medical marijuana?” I was treated like an addict by everyone. They don’t care who you are, they don’t care where you’ve been, they don’t care how you got there — if you’ve smoked marijuana, you’re an addict, as far as they’re concerned. So I ended up on the streets for three years with nowhere to go.
How did you feel the first time you went to the Homeless Services Center, when you realized you didn’t have a place to live?
I tried everything I could to avoid going there. I stayed in motels until I couldn’t. I slept in the woods up around Brookdale, but they eventually ran me out and told me to go to Santa Cruz, but my car died. It was truly the most devastating thing. … I cannot describe … during my time there, a woman actually died standing out in the street, out in front trying to get help. She was an old lady on disability. She was homeless and she died in front of the Homeless Services trying to get help. And having to sleep in a church …the only thing that sustained me through it was the belief that I would be getting housing if I stuck it out. I could talk for hours about how humiliating and how horribly I was treated there. It was like a prison and it was like a concentration camp. I spent many, many hours and weeks and months agonizing over whether I should give up my medicine. But the fact is I knew that I was better off with my medicine and without housing than I would have been without it and in housing with the people who were there. I never thought I’d be there, I never thought I’d be homeless. Here I was spending my entire life standing in line to sleep on a church floor. And being told every time I turned around, being confronted daily, hourly, and every minute with the fact that I could get housing if I could give up my medicine.
Do you think that homeless people in Santa Cruz are suffering from the effects of psychotropic drugs?
I think a lot of the people on the streets are suffering from the effects of these drugs. For many of these people, I think marijuana is a better alternative. I think the world would be a better place. I think it would be cost-effective for society to just give them as much marijuana as they could smoke if they didn’t do speed, or heroin, or heroin derivatives like Oxycoton.
What did your experience at the Homeless Services Center teach you?
When I first went down to the Homeless Services Center, I could see the whole system. I could see the whole purpose of the place. And the purpose was to run you out of town. When I found myself three years ago at your Homeless Services, I could see what I was up against. So for me the choice was to give up my medicine or be run out of town. You have 1,000 beds of transitional, emergency housing in this town and not one for medical marijuana. It hasn’t dawned on the City Council, the ramifications of a policy like that. For one thing, it’s going to be a magnet for all the people you don’t want. I could see it when I got here. Hopefully I will survive it.
Were you offered psychotropic drugs as an alternative to medical marijuana at the Homeless Services Center?
Not directly. The implication always was that we have all these pills you can have. I saw these people at the River Street Shelter taking Methadone, morphine, Oxycoton. They were all on so many drugs, they didn’t know who they were. I had a fear and a dread of being caught up in that. The implication was that they would be willing to give me any psychotrope that I would want. I can’t describe how horrible those were. I know I felt like I was operating at 10 percent capacity, and I hear this a lot from people who are taking them. I know when I was taking Paxil or Zoloft or one of those, I remember feeling like that, like I used to be smart once. Can you imagine how awful that is?
Why did you run for City Council?
This is not at all what I ever wanted to do with my life. I look at the streets,I see suffering all the time. I don’t like politics. I have a very low opinion of politics. I’m a cynic. I think the system is corrupt. And I don’t know how much power I’d have on the City Council. I might be able to facilitate change.
I think my biggest issue with Santa Cruz is the time and the energy and the money they are spending harassing poor people. I don’t think it’s working, I think it’s an enormous waste of resources.
What do you think about the city’s plan to “clean up” downtown and make it more friendly?
I don’t feel unsafe. See, my experience was I slept in front of Wachovia Bank a good part of three years, with a laptop, and everybody in the street always knew I had marijuana, knew I had a couple of bucks. And I slept. Who are these people that they don’t feel safe? I think it’s just an excuse. This is a beach town. And it’s a college town. You’re near a major metropolitan area and I think these people have really unrealistic expectations.
Would you consider running again?
I’m thinking yeah. I ran, more than anything else, because it was the best idea I could come up with to keep out of jail. I am thinking about it because I want to make Santa Cruz a better place. I just think they are doing a lot of things wrong. I would like to see Santa Cruz move away from this puritanical goose-talking. … I feel like these people have this fear of ‘Oh no, all these horrible undesirable people are going to come here if we get a reputation for being friendly.’ And the fact is that whether they like it or not, they have that reputation nationally. It’s a fact.