High Times Greats: Tony Serra

California’s counterculture counselor in a 1985 issue of High Times.
High Times Greats: Tony Serra
Tony Serra by Steve Cooper

For the September, 1985 issue of High Times, William Meyers interviewed legendary activist and civil rights lawyer Tony Serra, who celebrates his birthday on December 30.

We’d like to turn you on to Tony Serra—San Francisco criminal-defense attorney and mouthpiece for whatever’s left of the peace-and-freedom revolution. His experience ranges from the campus uprisings and psychic revelations of the ’60s to the front lines of Reagan’s techno-hyped drug war. His politics is a fusion of moral outrage, compassion for the oppressed, and the joy of being stoned free. His appearance—in disheveled, thrift-store garb, with waist-length, graying ponytail—betrays a long-term involvement with hip collectivism and a commitment to navigation by moral principle rather than social position or financial reward. Ever since his refusal to pay any income tax during the Vietnam war years, he’s been made familiar with the incarceration experience—good medicine, as he sees it, for the ego, and an opportunity to meditate on the scriptures. He frequently manages to be jailed for contempt—a charge that he would re-define as an excess of “controlled outrage,” to the emotional stirrings of which he attributes his famed persuasiveness. Even his traditional adversaries, the law-enforcing attorneys for the prosecution, concede the depth of his integrity and the heights of his oratory—which, judging from his long record of favorable verdicts, seems tailor-made for winning over the hearts of juries. Feeling that the freedom to explore our own minds and value systems through the altered perspective of mind-altering substances is not merely a civil liberty but a universal human right in urgent need of being defended, he regards his legal career as a religious calling, sometimes offering his drug-defense services for free to those in need.

In short, Tony Serra is just the sort of guy you’d like to have around when the feds break down your front door.

High Times: As a revolutionary marijuana-smoker of many years, what would you have to say about the drug scene today?

Tony Serra: In terms of what’s happening now as compared with the ’60s, the cannabis of those days spiritualized us. It was an aesthetic, spiritual and epistemological experience…

But now, with the cocaine generation, there’s no spiritual element, there’s no aesthetic element. Then, there was poetry for everyone—poetry for love, poetry for war, poetry for politics, poetry for youth—everything was poetry. And now there’s no poetry—there’s no aesthetics. It’s selfish.

High Times: Cocaine seems to have replaced psychedelics as the heavy drug of choice among many dealers and growers who make enough money to afford it. How do you think this has affected marijuana in the national consciousness?

Serra: Well, I don’t give a shit about what it’s done to the national consciousness. But it has eliminated the prospect of generation after generation of spiritualized, aestheticized grass-smokers, because the young go more now for the cocaine. It’s the element of prestige and the element of materialism and self-indulgence that’s emphasized. The people who smoke the grass know the difference. A gap will always exist between the truth and propaganda.

But my point is that people aren’t smoking the grass the way they smoked it previously. More is being smoked—more are smoking—but it’s as an adjunct to the cocaine experience.

High Times: We’ve been talking to growers who have said its use in the community has helped to bring down the whole trip…

Serra: It makes it easier for them to turn to capitalist exploitation. They’ll take their grass crop and bury it in the fucking ground and then bring it out to sell at the time of the highest profit, and then put that profit into cocaine.

High Times: Are we right in attributing a lot of the heat coming down in Humboldt County and places like that at least partly to the cocaine and all the criminal overtones it always seems to bring with it?

Serra: It makes it easier, once that association is out, for Reagan’s government to exploit it. That’s a partial ramification of cocaine, but cocaine can’t be solely responsible for that. I attribute it more to a general decline in consciousness that allows a Reagan government and a Deukmejian California government to come in.

At every level, we’re losing to authoritarian, totalitarian government techniques, packaged in symbols. We’re being enslaved—and you know what happens, first the mind is enslaved, then the body is enslaved. That’s economic, commercial enslavement, and that’s the worst kind. So that’s what’s really happening, and it’s devastating.

What I see in court is that the Fourth Amendment’s gone, the First Amendment is going, the Sixth Amendment is being speared… The heaviest fucking thing is Orwellian prophecy fulfilled, right in front of our eyes—without one whimper of protest. Not even a cry of agony…

High Times: Some people are protesting now—like the growers up in the hills [of Humboldt County]. We were wondering what you thought of the increasing number of civil-liberties violations taking place there.

Serra: It’s scary as shit. The first priority now is the confiscation of property. And that will happen and go on happening.

High Times: You’re referring to the recent case of the 208-acre ranch in Mendocino County being confiscated in a plea-bargain? Wasn’t that case really a confiscation resulting from a plea-bargain rather than a forfeiture resulting from the new law?

Serra: Why the fuck be euphemistic about it? It means a totalitarian government is grabbing your personal property! It’s the King, once again, taking the property from the public.

High Times: The defendants were very happy that they got off… They saved themselves maybe years in jail.

Serra: But as a precedent! It’s not a quote-legal-unquote precedent—but it’s a sociological precedent—it’s a dollop of fear and trembling flung at the growers. Landlords won’t rent to you if they think you’re growing. Banks won’t finance you if they think you’re growing. It’s a way of really getting to the root thing.

High Times: By terrorizing the people, apparently.

Serra: They’ll offer whatever plea-bargains they can come up with, of course, to get the front-page, national publicity that’s going to send a great chill into the commercial crops. It’s the Reagan government very wisely, but very insidiously, devastating a whole commercial enterprise.

We had a huge, meaningful, productive, agricultural industry… And people worked hard, and they spent the money locally, and they believed in all the underlying spirituality of the herb…

High Times: Where do you see the whole thing heading now?

Serra: I see all lawyers who support the Fourth Amendment targeted and going to jail. I see plants not growing, and I see property confiscated. That’s the nihilistic, negative, pessimistic view. I see, at the same time, the potential for the most rigorous ideological warfare fought over the Fourth Amendment—that issue, and the right to representation in this area—the Sixth Amendment right. And maybe out of that, from what we call the balance of powers… The judiciary has been traditionally what can hopefully check-and-balance a forceful, self-enlarging executive. We can’t count on the legislative…

High Times: What about the judiciary now?

Serra: They’re swinging the other way. If there is a battlefield, that is where it must lie. The constitutional form of government and the free-thinking way of life that we pretend to have here is what’s ultimately being challenged. So if we don’t circumscribe some battlefield—and the courts have been traditionally at least a buffer to the executive—then of course it’s going to be the dismal view. The positive view is that we’ll fucking fight—we ain’t gonna take the shit! You know—grow, and fight in court, and have [their violations] declared unconstitutional. But that’s a power struggle—between what’s right and what’s traditionally our rights by law, and a very powerful, all-pervasive government right now.

It’s a fascinating thing to watch and be part of. And it has this terrible, frightening possibility. And yet it has this kind of hopeful aspect too. I’m kind of happy to be in on it… you know, you run out of good fights. In the ’60s there were some meaningful battlefields—they were wonderful. We were cause-oriented, ideologically-oriented, philosophically oriented, religious… it was beautiful. Now, there’s this vacuum

High Times: Who’s in charge of the federal crackdown on marijuana out here?

Serra: There’s going to be several, but Jim LeSartre and Peter Robinson are certainly two that figure prominently. Jim LeSartre is the heavy. LeSartre heads a lot of the investigations that Bill Russoniello [the federal agent in charge of CAMP] maybe takes credit for. Some of them are drug-related, but LeSartre is broader than just drugs. He does what they call gangs, and what they call organized crime. Peter Robinson is the one who’s doing the cultivation cases, and he’s the one who set the precedent for the forfeiture of the property for marijuana cultivation.

High Times: He was the one behind the land trade, where they were willing to give up the land with him leaning on them?

Serra: Yes. They made the wrong decision. They should have fought it—tested the constitutionality—instead of allowing it to become a kind of nationwide precedent in the minds of growers and landowners.

High Times: You expect more of this to happen?

Serra: They’re gearing up for it. There isn’t one local northern-California law-enforcement officer who doesn’t sympathize with growers. Either that or it’s more than they can control. At any point there has been laxity by federal standards.

So now the fucking feds are marching in. They’re equipped with forfeiture procedures, large budgets, airplanes—big money behind their surveillance. And in their mind it’s like an all-out war, which has a prize to be sought. The prize is these forfeitures—to enlarge their treasury. And under the Reagan administration that’s become a priority. The feds say, “Prosecutors, DEA—you have to make a return on our investment in you. Go out and get ’em.” So forfeitures and seizures have become a priority.

High Times: When was this law passed?

Serra: In October, 1984. It’s federal law. California law has followed with its own forfeiture provisions.

High Times: Could you describe what you see as the grand strategy of this joint federal-state persecution of the grower subculture? What’s behind this specific campaign that’s happening now?

Serra: I see it in greater depth than that. We’re faced with a totalitarian form of government, Orwellian in magnitude, and subversive elements are going to be trampled out. And one of the subversive elements in their mind that generates a large surplus of resource is the marijuana growers.

High Times: An alternative economy? Money that’s out of the tax flow?

Serra: All of that. See, there’s no defiant students—they’ve won there. They’re trying to hit what they consider organized crime—smuggling ventures, counterfeiters—not just dope, it’s at other levels, too—but because it openly supports antigovernmental, anti-Reagan politics. It’s politically motivated—it’s a form of warfare. It isn’t just the grass growers—it’s broader. But grass growers are one significant part of it. And so what’s their objective? To totally fucking wipe it out. Not because dope is bad, but because it’s an alternate culture, and it produces resources—which, in their minds, is subversion: people who walk to a different drumbeat, who won’t conform, who won’t submit to Reagan’s totalitarianism.

High Times: And perhaps because the grower subculture, like the black or latino subculture, is one which they expect to trample on with impunity.

Serra: I understand that the focus of our conversation is on grass growers. But that’s just one dimension. There’s less constitutional rights, there’s “preventive detention” now…

High Times: Can you give us more details on “preventive detention”?

Serra: There’s a presumption now in the federal law that drug traffickers are not entitled to bail—that they are flight-risk, and that they are in essence untrustworthy and that they pose a threat to society. So they’re not going to give fucking bail! Unless the U.S. attorney—that’s what it boils down to—agrees to bail. Otherwise all the presumptions are against you. And in the ninth circuit—that’s our circuit—it’s declared that that’s a constitutional precept. For 200 years we had a presumption of innocence, which allows for bail—one of the greatest foundations of the system, that you’re presumed innocent—so you don’t languish in a fucking prison for five years, like in Latin countries, before you’re tried. And now they’ve just ripped that foundation apart, legislatively.

High Times: Who’s behind these new laws? How are they getting generated with so little resistance?

Serra: Ed Meese. Thank Ed Meese.

High Times: Where’s the counter-reaction? Where’s the noise?

Serra: I don’t know. That’s the great sadness.

High Times: Where did it all go? Why is everybody so quiet?

Serra: These are broad sociological issues. Students now are all into engineering. They’re all into business. No more liberal arts like you and me. Liberal arts is a no-no. They’re materialistic.

High Times: And us? Antiquated, monastic eccentricity?

Serra: Yes. Bordering on political subversion. Those are the ideas, remember, that Socrates died for. There’s no emphasis now, as there was in our student days, on liberal arts. I went and spoke to students at Stanford and Yale. Up front, they’re interested in whether they’re going to prosper, and whether their materialism is going to be sustained. They care little that the American military is…

High Times: Roaming the seas with hundreds of doomsday machines?

Serra: Yeah. Because it gives the student more business opportunities and more computer jobs. You see it a lot in the colleges—there’s no defiance. And we of the older school are regarded, at best, with some kind of a polite compassion.

High Times: Fading revolutionaries?

Serra: At best. At worst, something that should be kicked aside and disregarded. So what’s it mean? Have we fucking lost? Are we losing? Is it all going to go? Is Reagan going to be supplanted by something worse than Reagan? Will we completely reject all of the constitutional principles that we’ve lived by?

High Times: Who’s resisting this drift, besides you?

Serra: When a society becomes oppressive, there are some people who go underground; some people leave it; and some will always stay and fight. And there are some lawyers for whom commitment to the struggle is their most meaningful role. But it gets harder and harder.

I know what I want to do. I want to take on a more symbolic role, as a defendant. I see that as the next logical step—that you have to create your own issue and throw your body on the wheel, so to speak. After all, lawyers are equipped to represent themselves—to make your own defense can become good public relations, when you’re fighting on this kind of symbolic, allegorical level.

So I think the next step, yes, is for those who believe there’s something worth fighting about to stay and fight— and others who don’t can go to fucking New Zealand. Why even stay here? Go to the hills!

High Times: But they’re coming after us in the hills now.

Serra: So those who think there’s something to stay for have to be committed, I guess, in lifetime terms, to stay here. Then the next step is to challenge the state with your own persona—not stand behind causes. There are none. Not be represented by student leaders—there are none. Not Third World leaders—there are none. Not religious leaders—there are none. They’ve all been decapitated somehow. By the press. By their own excesses. By their own defects. I don’t know… We have no fucking leaders.

Call it whatever you want. Call it the Subculture. Call it the Left. Call it political awareness. There are no leaders.

High Times: What happened to higher consciousness? Are there no leaders of higher consciousness left?

Serra: Whoever they are, they’ve retreated into less public positions. In public positions they get defamed and ridiculed in the press. Like what’s happening now with what’s-his-name…

High Times: Da Free John?

Serra: Yes. I don’t know the truth or falsity of it, but the press mythology is that he’s the biggest rip-off of the whole trip.

High Times: Another obscene fiend, as the media would have it.

Serra: So everyone laughs about it— and underneath, won’t allow any new impulse for enlightenment to come in.

High Times: There’s a low level of trust in that kind of impulse, now that the very concept of enlightenment or pursuing a spiritual life has been so thoroughly denigrated.

Serra: You’ve got to think of where you really stand. I want to believe I’m of the warrior caste. A warrior has to fight—that’s what you do. You see your salvation through death in battle. Out of which comes the idea of being reborn and re-cast in many battles. That’s why it’s so great to be a lawyer. After you die you can be reborn. And you do die when you lose a case. But you can rise again, and fight another case. I can sharpen my sword on murder cases—I’m in a murder case now—but that really isn’t the purpose of a sharp sword. It’s for the ideological battle. But for that battle, you’ve got to create your own issue. Because now, with the chickenshit cowardice compromise we’ve got going on, there’s no idealists and there’s no movement.

High Times: Among the grass growers, don’t you find there are some idealists there—and some really good, symbolic cases to take on among them?

Serra: Issue-wise, yes. But too many of them are not idealistic themselves. Too many of them are materialistic. They’re exploitive. They charge too fucking much. They have no sense of the sacramental.

High Times: Would you say they’ve brought down the house on themselves like that?

Serra: They’re subject to the same ridicule as the gurus. It used to be there were these guys walking around with whole shopping-bags of peyote—and they were giving it away. Because it was sacrament. Or the big acid dealers of the ’60s—they were adding about 2 cents to every dollar. A two-cent markup. Why? They wanted to get it out. It was a sacrament to be distributed. It was like a holy calling. A few marijuana farmers still talk like that.

High Times: You can still find acid at a dollar a hit.

Serra: Yeah. Forty-microgram disco doses. They’ve poisoned the public so much about acid that young kids are no longer so experimental. Kids will now go behind the barn to snort four lines of cocaine before they’ll drop acid. They’re afraid of the acid because of all the adverse propaganda. That’s Reagan again.

I use Reagan as a symbol. He’s a symbol of overreaching government, in terms of working on the mentality of our whole society.

High Times: How do you feel about NORML? Do you feel like grass legalization is even a viable issue now?

Serra: I don’t think it is. I completely respect NORML and any other organization that has that as a goal—because it educates. You take away that kind of platform of education and dissemination of honest knowledge, and what you’re left with is whatever the governmental position is. So it’s completely necessary, and whatever sacrifice is required, society always has to leave room for the true few who may well oppose the political view of the government.

But, as far as NORML being efficacious—as far as legalizing marijuana right now—I’m very pessimistic.

High Times: Not for a long while?

Serra: Not for another decade.

High Times: Even should some resurgent Democratic coalition emerge in ’88?

Serra: No, because they can’t take off where we left off. They have become so strong in the area of drugs—“dangerous drugs”— that we’re not where we used to be. People are now once again going to the state penitentiary behind marijuana sales. Traditionally in San Francisco you’ve had poor people selling little bits of grass on the street, and the first time around they give them some quick probation and maybe 30 days or 60 days—nothing heavy the first time around. That’s for small sales—$20 sales on the street. Then the next time around, for maybe a $30 sale, they set them up and send them to the fucking joint.

I went in [to court] the other day, and there was a guy who, for two hits of acid, was going to go to the joint for three years. It was a revocation of his probation. He’d already been sentenced—this was a motion to reconsider. He was found in possession of two hits of acid, and he was being packaged for the joint. I almost literally cried. I had to retrace the whole history of the Haight-Ashbury… And [finally] it came down to one year in jail. But that’s for two hits of acid.

High Times: So it’s been a pretty serious long-term setback that we’ve experienced under Reagan?

Serra: Yes. It’s not just a matter of let’s pretend hopefully that he will be so exposed by his Nicaraguan adventure that he will be voted out of office—or the likes of him will be voted out of office—which I don’t think is going to happen. It’s not going to return to status quo ante—no way.

High Times: Even an opposition candidate would have to come on from a conservative perspective…?

Serra: Yes. To accommodate the great middle class—who feel that drugs are pernicious to society, and that there’s a direct stepping-stone from marijuana to heroin and robbing banks. The platitude’s been sold successfully, and it takes decades to turn that kind of thing around.

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  1. Thirty-5 years or so have passed. Things have changed. For the good,ya know? Legal psychedelics seem to be around the corner!? Trump is gone for now! I never thought I’d be the one to be sayin:Cheer up! The 80’s were horrible! So is the 21st century! Until you compare these time frames 35-40 years later! Carry On Brothers and Sisters, I can feel it, freedom’s coming!

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