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Nov-27-2008 11:25printcommentsVideo

View from 'The Group W Bench'

“Group W's where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committing your special crime..." - Arlo Guthrie

people on bench
Image by Bonnie King

(SALEM, Ore.) - Several years ago, my husband, Bill, and I were listening to Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving classic, “Alice’s Restaurant.” This song tells the story of a Thanksgiving celebration with hilarious and unforeseen consequences, including an arrest for littering and an impact on Mr. Guthrie’s experience with the Vietnam War draft.

Bill and I have been listening to the song every year since we met nearly twenty years ago, but on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, I felt as though I was hearing part of it for the first time.

Earlier in the spring of that year, after dipping my toes into the waters of politics in Maryland, Bill and I decided to pack up and move our family to Oregon. Our primary reason for moving was so that I could take the medicine I need, cannabis, without breaking the law.

In Maryland, although I helped to pass a law that allowed an affirmative defense for the “crime” of taking a dose of marijuana, it was still a crime, and I still had to live with the threat of someone breaking down my door, pointing guns at my children, and hauling me off to jail, before I could have benefited from an affirmative defense.

Sometimes, when I was preparing sweet rolls before the sun came up, I wondered what I should do, were someone to break down our door just then. Should I grab the knife tighter and move to defend myself and my family from a burglar? Or should I drop the knife and raise my hands over my head, in case it was the police or the DEA conducting a raid?

There was one, single day when I felt truly safe in my own home back then. A storm had blanketed the entire northeast in a thick layer of ice, and all of the roads were closed. I knew for certain that no one – not even the DEA – would be able to drive on those roads, let alone break down my door that day.

From there, Oregon looked like Shangri-La! And in some ways, it has indeed been a dream come true. Each and every day I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to live in a state where I can take my medicine without breaking the law. However, each and every day I am also increasingly aware of the injustice that remains, even here.

The stated intent of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act was to treat therapeutic cannabis like every other medicine, yet our system fails to treat marijuana like any other medicine. Anytime I feel a need, I could go to my doctor, obtain prescriptions for any combination of very dangerous and sometimes deadly drugs, pick them up at a pharmacy, drive myself home, consume these products “as needed,” and no one other than my doctor, my pharmacist, and myself are ever supposed to know about it.

With the inarguably safer marijuana, however, just to avoid being arrested, I’m forced to register with the state like a sex offender. Furthermore, in a twisted bit of irony, I have to pay the state for the privilege of avoiding that arrest. I’d call that legalized extortion.

All of this and more was swirling around my mind as Bill and I listened to Alice’s Restaurant on that Thanksgiving Day. As Arlo Guthrie began speaking about his experiences with the draft, and he reached the part where he was directed to “The Group W Bench,” I turned down the volume, grabbed Bill’s hand, and gasped, “Bill! That’s exactly how I feel! Medical marijuana patients have been put on “The Group W Bench!”

Arlo Guthrie paints a vivid picture with his words, describing that experience:

“Group W's where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committing your special crime, and there was all kinds of mean nasty ugly looking people on the bench there. Mother rapers. Father stabbers. Father rapers! Father rapers sitting right there on the bench next to me! And they was mean and nasty and ugly and horrible crime-type guys sitting on the bench next to me.”

This is a perfect description of how it feels to be lumped with criminals for the “crime” of trying to feel better. (And we haven’t even littered – just dared to take the medicine our doctors recommend.) Our federal laws put sick and dying patients right on the bench next to Bad Guys like the infamous Pablo Escobar.

Worse, instead of regulating our medicine, our government allows criminals to maintain a monopoly on the vast majority of the cannabis distribution in America. Where are the sick and dying supposed to turn for help when our government turns its back on us?

Not long after the 2000 election, I had my hopes dashed when President Bush broke his campaign promise to respect states’ rights and to respect the medical marijuana laws in states that have them. I had always been taught that the President of the United States is supposed to be a man of his word.

I’m not sure how to react to President-elect Obama’s similar statement about medical marijuana back on March 22nd in Medford’s Mail Tribune: “I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue.” Although I’m hesitant to get my hopes up too much again, that’s an awfully clear promise, and I’m hoping our new President will show the courage and honor of standing by his words. If I could ask him only one thing, it would be simply that he keep his promise to us.

This Thanksgiving, as I listen to Alice’s Restaurant once again, I’ll still laugh about “The Group W Bench,” but it’s the darker, more cynical laugh of a chronically ill mother of five who doesn’t deserve to be on the bench with the Bad Guys.

Still, I’ll count my many blessings, hug Bill and our kids, and keep hope alive for a brighter and more compassionate tomorrow for all of us. And then, in the words of Arlo’s contemporaries, The Who, “I’ll get on my knees and pray we won’t get fooled again!”

WATCH Arlo Guthrie's "ALICE'S RESTAURANT" video below, a thanksgiving tradition to share~ Enjoy:


Erin Hildebrandt wears many hats. She's wife to Bill Hildebrandt, mom to five beautiful kids, activist, artist, legally registered Oregon medical marijuana patient, public speaker, and an internationally published writer. She co-founded Parents Ending Prohibition, and her writing has been printed in Mothering Magazine, New York's Newsday, and Canada's National Post, among many others. Erin has been interviewed for a front page story in USA Today, and she has been published in the American Bar Association Journal. Speaking as a survivor of child sexual abuse, Erin also appeared on the Geraldo Rivera show. She has also testified before Oregon Senate and House committees, and Maryland Senate and House committees. We are very pleased to feature the work of Erin Hildebrandt on

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sean November 29, 2008 6:15 pm (Pacific time)

I want GRASS-roots efforts to produce a GREEN economy by legalizing hemp/marijuana. I have written my congressmen (state and fed) as well as Obama- numerous times. I use my real name, and I vote my support. I have joined NORML. The aguments are out there. They are numerous, correct and well-founded in truth and logic. Stop being afraid and INSIST, as an American citizen that this failed war on pot be ended. THE POLITICIANS WORK FOR US and if they fail, WE FIRE THEM. There are three groups that I know of on advocating legalization. The link above is to one of them. Join them. Join NORML. Make your voice heard! POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

Delilah November 28, 2008 11:05 pm (Pacific time)

Do you realize how much money the state of Oregon has made off these patients "LarryO"? MILLIONS. That's protection money and nothing less. Interesting business the government is in. BTW, how is it rational to give someone a permit to use MJ but no where to get it without breaking the law? You realize that most sick people cannot grow, and do not know growers, right? So they keep on being on the edge of breaking the law, even with the OMMA in place.

Jim November 28, 2008 11:18 am (Pacific time)

We should start a fund for sick people to MOVE to legal states that can't afford to. Can MPP help?

Anonymous November 28, 2008 11:16 am (Pacific time)

cops don't have a list of OMMA patients. they DO NOT. once they came to my house cause a kid saw a plant in my window. all i did was tell them i was a ommp, they wrote down my bday from my license and left with apologies. it's all good.

Julie November 28, 2008 11:14 am (Pacific time)

I think Erin's right about having to be "registered". no, not like sex-offenders, but since we MJ patients are the only patients in Oregon that must be on file (and pay the state) to use our medicine, we do feel somewhat ostercized. This can and will change with time, but only if we pay attention and keep improving the law. It's NOT all about how many ounces or plants we can have- that's almost bribery to just "be happy with what we've got and keep our mouths shut". Wrong. I do appreciate living in Oregon, and how far we've come. Is it far enough? no. But, yes, we are far better off than at least 37 other US states.

larryo November 28, 2008 10:30 am (Pacific time)

PS: You are not registering "like a sex offender." The list of OMMA patients and caregivers is secret by law. Law enforcement officers can determine if a particular name is registered or an address has a legal grow if they have the name or address. If the person or address is registered, that is the end of the investigation unless there is evidence of actual trafficking. Each patient is permitted six mature marijuana plants (with no size restriction) PLUS 24 ounces of usable marijuana. TWENTY-FOUR OUNCES! And if a patient gets stopped or searched at home and turns out to be legal, the police are required by law to give back the marijuana and go away. So what are you belly-aching about?

larryo November 28, 2008 10:21 am (Pacific time)

Erin should read Jeff's message again and again until she gets how truly fortunate she is. I am an Oregon native who worked diligently for the passage of the OMMA. Poor baby has to pay $150 and register, and then she can have all the weed she could possibly need to use. Can grow it herself with impunity, or her caregiver provides it to her gratis.

How many people around the US, do you suppose, would gladly register and pay $150 for all the weed they could smoke? And we are not talking about Mexican hay here, either - this is the famous Oregon Killer Green Bud.
Count your blessings, Erin.

Greg November 28, 2008 9:42 am (Pacific time)

Ironic, Group W Bench initials GWB.

Jeff November 27, 2008 3:32 pm (Pacific time)

Count your lucky stars that you had the money to move to Oregon. I am stuck in Iowa where Medical Marijuana will still be illegal after it is legalized federally thanks to people like Sen Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who is in the "Reefer Madness" mode. I have to live in fear of incarceration and forfieture of property to take my medicine. But you know what? It is well worth it. For there is no drug in exsistence today that controls chronic nausea as well and as safe as inhaled Cannabis vapors/smoke.

Andy Hopkins November 27, 2008 1:37 pm (Pacific time)

This was a delightful read and the video kept us rolling for the full 18 minutes. Erin, thanks for sharing your story and connecting it to this classic American folk song.

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