April 1, 1996

David France

DOWNSTAIRS at a lower-Manhattan bar, in a room filled with blacklight posters and tie-dyed drapes, Johann Moore was hunched over, rifling through a large canvas tote bag. "Hi Johann," called out a muscular man in sideburns and a taut T-shirt that said "Adventure Vacation." "You busy today?"

"Not really," Moore said. Actually, the small alcove was filling up with members of the New York Medical Marijuana Buyers' Club - mostly people with AIDS, who gather salonlike in this basement every Tuesday from five-thirty to six-thirty.

(Moore explained that the bar's owner "sort of looks the other way.") The club, a two-year-old spinoff of ACT-UP, claims some thirty members, who suffer from symptoms that pot helps assuage, like nausea or sleeplessness. To these people, unlike the Mayor - who recently announced that people caught lighting up in certain public places would be arrested rather that issued a summons- "quality of life" means smoking a little weed and then finally holding down a meal. On a chintz couch sat two men and a woman, hollow-cheeked by robust; three others were propped on another sofa, which was largely depilated of its swirling velvet nap. A stylish man, unable to catch his breath, pressed a hand over a lung, fingers and rings splayed wide.

In his narrow tie, cardigan, and Perma-Prest slacks, and with his awkward demeanor, Moore doesn't look like a drug dealer or an AIDS activist. He suffers not from AIDS but from chronic-fatigue syndrome, which compromises his "entire psychoneuroimmunological system." (He's on welfare while appealing a rejection of his disability claim.) "Pot allows me to rise up from above the pain and reach a moment of grace," he said. Every day, he rolls and smokes one W.C. Fields-size joint, providing enough moments of grace to run the Medical Marijuana Buyers' Club, which he founded. It is his only job, and his main vexation.

Last August, when the club was temporarily locked out of its meeting place, Moore imprudently set up shop on a street corner, where he was busted by a vanload of housing cops. He was found with eight stout Baggies' worth of marijuana, forty grams in all, and charged with criminal sale in the fourth degree - a Class A misdemeanor. His lawyer, Ruth Liebesman, has rejected plea offers and pressed for a jury trial, which is set for April 3rd. Even when the D.A.'s office proposed a deal that would have expunged Moore's record if he stayed out of trouble for six months, the defense rejected the offer: Moore refused to stay out of trouble for six months. Without him, the Tuesday salons would not happen.

He had hoped for an outpouring of support from the AIDS community, but it hasn't come. Now he handed each new arrival a about the trial, hoping that club members would agree to testify. "It's a jury trial, and that's the smallest-scale revolution there is," Moore said to a man shouldering a Kenneth Cole bag. "Thirteen people at a time, we can educate the population about medical marijuana." The Kenneth Cole fellow didn't commit. He shot thirty dollars to Moore, who produced two full baggies and pressed them into the man's palm. The street price would have been a hundred and twenty dollars. "We have Mexican right now, which is tasty," Moore announced. "Autumn crop."

Moore enforces just one rule: anyone wishing to join the club must provide proof of illness. A potential club member plucked a wallet from tight jeans and said, "I have my G.M.H.C. Card." Glancing at it, Moore said, "That's cool."

Marijuana is "a folk medicine," he said. "For malabsorption, for energy, and..."

"And the appetite," a man with Nautilus biceps offered.

"Right? That's how it helps me," said a slight Latino man in his twenties. "I went to the doctor - I weighed one-forty-five, now I'm one-fifty, which is good." He folded his bills and passed the to Moore.

The woman on the chintz sofa rose grandly and bought four bags, then kissed Moore's hand. When everybody left, having unburdened Moore of thirty bags of pungent cannabis and his stack of flyers, he put on a fedora and headed toward So Ho, absolutely spent by the experience. At the corner of Broome and Wooster, he began a Tuesday ritual, lighting a tattered join and breathing in luxuriously.