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Alia Volz on Her Personal History with Marijuana & the LGBTQ Community

Alia Volz on Her Personal History with Marijuana & the LGBTQ Community

Author: K.M. Soehnlein

May 10, 2020

Remember when “edible” was an adjective and not a noun? When selling pot could get someone sentenced as severely as selling heroin? (Prisons are still full of people, mostly people of color, serving out marijuana-related convictions.) The trajectory of how we got from then to now—with medical and/or recreational cannabis legal in 22 states—runs right through the queer liberation movement. Debut author Alia Volz gives this history the epic telling it deserves in her effervescent new memoir, Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco (Houghton Mifflin).

For Volz, who grew up in San Francisco in the eighties, marijuana was the family business. Her flame-haired, charismatic mother Meridy and her (not so) secretly bisexual father Doug ran Sticky Fingers Brownies, “the first known business of its kind to operate at that scale in California,” she writes. At its peak, in the Tales of the City heyday, they baked 10,000 pot brownies a month. The book is full of vivid scenes of the very extra Meridy (typical look: “a cobalt-blue turban, sparkling turquoise top, flowy blue harem pants, and Candie’s mules”) pushing baby Alia through the Castro in a stroller, making deliveries to Harvey Milk’s camera shop or the apartment where disco legend Sylvester was sprawled on a divan.

Volz, an LGBTQ ally “raised by gay aunties,” writes with a voice that is equal parts authoritative, mischievous, and moving. As she tries to unearth the facts behind her childhood as the daughter of the infamous Brownie Lady, she charts the larger story of the queer community under siege, turning to edibles for relief during the ravages of AIDS—and planting the seeds for the legal changes that bloomed into our cannabis-friendly world today. 

Volz was kind enough to sit down for an interview and share some thoughts about her upcoming book. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Your book tells the story of Sticky Fingers Brownies, your parents’ wildly successful, underground marijuana brownie business. What led you to write it?

I grew up with these stories. My mom would hang out with her friends on her queen-sized bed, which we called “the barge,” and as a little kid, I’d listen. After she had a bout of illness in 2006, it occurred to me to get her stories recorded in her own voice. The more I heard, the more questions I had about this really secretive world I grew up in. How did that fit into the larger world? What social pressures created it? When adult recreational use of marijuana was heading toward legalization, I became passionate that people understand where the right to consume marijuana comes from, and how the AIDS crisis was part of that. There’s a debt of remembrance there. 

The book is part memoir, but most of it takes place before you were born. How did you go about getting the story? 

I started with the interviews. It’s the nature of the beast—the nature of drug dealing—that the dealers led me to customers and growers, and customers led me to other customers. And then I went into the archives: the GLBT Historical Society archives, the history room at the SF Public Library, the Bay Area Reporter archives. The memoir is a Trojan horse. The story I wanted to tell was the social history of San Francisco in the ’70s and ’80s. I wanted to talk about the AIDS crisis and the bravery I witnessed as a child, the story of medical marijuana moving from party drug to panacea, the transition from dealer to healer. In the 1980s and 1990s, most medical-marijuana activists were also AIDS activists. The co-author and driving force behind Prop 215 [which legalized medical cannabis in California in 1996—the first in the nation to pass a statewide vote] had lost his lover to AIDS. 

What surprised you the most about what you learned of your parents, their business, or the world they moved in?

When I started this project I was estranged from my father. If we talked about the past we’d end up in a fight. When I let him know what I was doing, he read some of my essays. He was hurt by some of it but also interested in sharing his side. He was as curious as I was to put together the person he used to be. We became very close through that process. That was really surprising to me. I was surprised by his bravery. His sexuality is exposed; his difficult temperament is exposed. There were things he doesn’t remember—like the fact that he went to a gay bathhouse the day I was born—and he had to confront being represented on the page at a less flattering period of his life, when he was pretty young. It was very healing for us. He’s now out of the closet and in love with this wonderful guy. They’re such a nice couple, and it’s changed his personality profoundly—it must be the shedding of shame. 

Your mother is an amazing character. How do you think she managed to do something so original and unprecedented as start this business and grow it into what it became? 

She’s a very adventurous person. She’s ballsy and never had a lot of fear. She would toss the I Ching before making any significant decision, and whatever it indicated, she would follow it. She would take these incredible risks but feel safe about it. She trusted her hippie oracles.

Your story moves along in time with the emergence of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco. Was there a point where you realized that the Castro would be like a character in your story?

It always was—it was a character in my memories. I was born in ’77, and I started to have memories at about 4 years old, when my mother and I were living north of the city, and she would make monthly trips to San Francisco to sell brownies. We’d stay in Beck’s Motor Lodge in the Castro! Her customers were mostly gay men, this parade of vibrant, exciting people with great hair and great outfits. As a kid, I was just in love—they were all so cool. We moved back to the city in ’87; I was nine and was now seeing people who I thought of as surrogate aunties and uncles suffering so much, so ill, but also rising up. It really made an impression on me as a child—the love, loss, and bravery. 

One of your mother’s regular customers was Sylvester—how much of that story did you know about before you started the book?

I was lucky enough to remember Sylvester first-hand. My mom started selling brownies to him while she was pregnant with me and continued until he died in ’88. She would sometimes take me with her. I remember his place on Twin Peaks—it had this amazing boudoir vibe, and he had a pool table, which absorbed my attention. When I was young, I identified really strongly with Alice in Wonderland, for obvious reasons—I was an only child always around stoned people, navigating these weird drug-filled environments. Sylvester would wear turbans and caftans or flowy silk robes, and all this jewelry, and he would lounge on this velvet fainting couch, smoking a joint. He was the Caterpillar, right out of Wonderland. He was magical. 

You’ve lived in San Francisco most of your life. You write, “I grew up believing that I was made of my hometown, that there was no difference between me and the place I was born.” Do you feel that the spirit of freedom and adventure is alive and well in San Francisco?

Oh, God no. It’s been badly trampled. In more optimistic and romantic moments, I can see it as cyclical. San Francisco has this long history of recurring waves of mass migration—hundreds of thousands of people come in, and in a very short time, displace what was there before and create something new. The Gold Rush displaced and massacred the Ramaytush Ohlone, who’d been there for thousands of years. The hippies devastated Haight Ashbury, which was a thriving neighborhood with a large African American population. The gay liberation activists transformed the city as a whole. The techie tornado—a huge influx of people—have come here to do this crazy thing, destroying what was there before. It’s a heartbreaker, but it also feels like it’s part of the nature of this place. I still feel a heart-connection that doesn’t go away, even though I am deeply disillusioned. I still feel that it’s my town. 

Photo via aliavolz.com

K.M. Soehnlein photo

About: K.M. Soehnlein

K.M. Soehnlein received the Lambda Award for The World of Normal Boys. He is the author of the novels You Can Say You Knew Me When and Robin and Ruby. He received a SFFILM/Rainin Filmmaking Grant for The Continental, co-written with Aron Kantor, a feature screenplay about New York’s legendary Continental Baths. He teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.

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