San Francisco, 1978. A 4,000 square-foot warehouse in the city’s Mission District is home to a successful small business, Sticky Fingers. Not only is Sticky Fingers successful, it’s wildly successful. Sticky Fingers isn’t in the business of selling used copies of the 1971 Rolling Stones album of the same name, however. Sticky Fingers is in the business of cooking and selling thousands upon thousands of pot brownies. At its center is a thirty-something mother whose reign as San Francisco’s “original brownie lady” stems from a high profile drug bust in Milwaukee 10 years prior. That bust, as all good busts must, involved a baby, the old post office on Wisconsin Avenue, and an overzealous “evil super-cop” who died but really didn’t. Oh, and lots of pot.
Milwaukee, 1969. Meridy Domnitz is 21 years old, an honors student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and staying with her folks in Milwaukee for summer break. Also staying is Patty Abrams, the wife of Meridy’s cousin who lives in Berkeley, California, and their infant son Jacob.
In a 2016 episode of the excellent podcast Criminal, Meridy succinctly sums up what happened next:
“It was 1969, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a flower child, the real deal. My cousin’s wife and their six-month-old baby were staying with me. He sent her a package in the mail that contained pot, for her to sell and get a plane ticket or bus ticket back.
“My cousin’s wife went in, got the package from the post office. When she came out to the car where I was waiting, she offered me either the baby or the package. I took the package. We were surrounded by vice squad with guns drawn. I also had three joints, four roaches, and two seeds in my purse.”
A 1969 Milwaukee Journal piece on the bust, “Mail Contains Drug, Women Seized,” tells it this way:
Vice squad officers said the packages, sent airmail special delivery from Berkeley and addressed to Mrs. Abrams’ 3 ½ month old son, Jacob, were claimed Thursday at about 4:30 p.m. by Mrs. Abrams.
Police were waiting at the post office for the pickup because they had information, they said, that the packages contained marijuana. Officers stopped Mrs. Abrams as she got into a car parked outside and asked her and two others in the car to go inside the post office.
When Mrs. Abrams refused the officers’ request to open the packages, the officers opened them and found 4 pounds 2 ounces of marijuana, they said.
In a 2014 piece titled “My Mother The Ganja Dealer,” Meridy’s daughter Alia Volz details what happened next:
Meet Patrolman Rodney Steinrod: crew cut, Banlon shirt, razor-sharp creases. In my mother’s telling, he’s a villain from a comic book: the evil super-cop.
Steinrod (whose name I’ve changed here) ushered the party into the Federal Building and down a seemingly endless corridor to a bare white room with a table. He placed the sealed package in front of Meridy, and instructed her to open it.
“It’s not addressed to me,” she said. “Isn’t it illegal to open someone else’s mail?”
Her friend also refused. Baby Jacob, the proper addressee, slept in Patty’s arms, his little hands balled-up by his cheeks. He wouldn’t be opening boxes for a few years; at best, he could gum the corner.
“Steinrod got really frustrated,” Meridy remembers. “You could just see his face turning red and his blood pressure going up.” The patrolman finally sliced the box open himself. The dusky scent of Mexican gold bud wafted into the room.
A female officer oversaw the strip searches and found the girls’ orifices vacant of drugs. Meridy’s wicker purse, however, was far more interesting.
My mother’s purses have always been cornucopias of random crap. She probably carried coconut oil, make-up, art supplies, toothpicks, jewelry and 50,000 scraps of paper, as well as assorted pothead paraphernalia. In her words, “They found four joints, three roaches, two seeds and a partridge in a pear tree.”
“You think that wouldn’t be front page news,” says host Phoebe Judge in the Criminal episode. “It was in Milwaukee,” counters Meridy. “It was a felony. 1969. There was a whole different feeling in the air about people who used pot.”
In court, Meridy and Patty’s lawyer asked that the case be dismissed, arguing that since the package was opened by “Steinrod” but was addressed to someone else—in this case, a baby—the search and seizure were illegal. “I don’t buy that, by golly,” said the judge, who denied the motion to dismiss.
Ultimately, however, on March 20, 1970, the case was dismissed. Meridy remained fearful of the vengeful “Steinrod,” who vowed to keep close tabs on the girls. But after learning of his death in a freak traffic accident (a story that turned out to be false), Meridy moved to San Francisco, married, became Meridy Volz, and had a baby. In a few years she would also be cranking out thousands of pot brownies every week, and “making enough money to support three families, with money left over to travel to Europe,” according to Criminal.
“There was a theory about not tip-toeing around and sneaking and trying to be low-profile,” Meridy says in the Criminal episode. “There was something very, very safe about being extremely high-profile.”
That approach paid off. Sticky Fingers was a San Francisco sensation. At its height, Meridy and company were cooking and selling roughly 2,500 pot brownies every weekend. All that despite the fact the business was little more than a warehouse and “one little antique Wedgewood oven.” The brownie bags were emblazoned with new original art every week, and Meridy and her friends would parade through the city hawking their wares.
As the years wore on, however, AIDS entered the picture, and what was once a carefree business built on recreational drug use became more about easing both physical and mental pain. Meridy shut down Sticky Fingers in 1979, gave away her recipe, and moved her family to the Emerald Triangle region of northern California. These days, she tells Criminal, she’s makes her living as an artist and is long out of the mass-produced pot brownie game, though she does still indulge in edibles from time to time.
And what about that bust, back in Milwaukee, back in 1969, so long ago, that sparked off her unlikely career?
“What do you make of the argument that [pot] is dangerous?,” Judge asks Meridy in the Criminal episode.
“Bull,” Meridy says.