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Updated Friday, December 14, 2012 at 08:06 AM

Obituary: Medical-pot activist Ric Smith fought illness with acts of kindness

By Susan Kelleher
Seattle Times staff reporter

Ric Smith wasn't big on legacies. But his signature rallying cry, which so captured his belief that medical marijuana should be available to sick people, will live on: "Munchies save lives."

It was the mid-1990s when Mr. Smith was in an AIDS hospice, his weight down to double-digits. He smoked some pot and soon regained his appetite and his health. In no time he joined a small but devoted group of people advocating for medical marijuana in Washington when the movement was fraught with legal peril and social stigma.

"He was absolutely fearless in that respect," said his friend, Joanna McKee, founder of the Green Cross Patient Co-op, a pioneering advocacy and education group for medical pot. "He did a lot of psychological heavy lifting. He said it didn't matter (if authorities came after him): 'What are they going to do? Kill me? I'm already on my way.' "

Mr. Smith, a patient advocate who became an important and beloved player in the state's medical-marijuana movement, died Tuesday afternoon at Kindred Hospital in North Seattle from complications related to kidney dialysis. He was 49.

Some people's lives are measured by awards and diplomas, career milestones and important titles. Mr. Smith's was measured by thousands of acts of kindness, most of them as invisible and unglamorous as the time he drove across town after midnight to deliver marijuana to a cancer patient who had been throwing up all day.

"He was very sick himself, so he was very simpatico with their medical problems," said McKee, who met Mr. Smith at Seattle's Hempfest festival more than 15 years ago. "We had a lot of patients at death's door. He seemed to know what to say, what to do, how to make them feel better so they didn't feel so alone."

Mr. Smith was born Richard Alan Smith on March 16, 1963. His father, Lawrence Reed, ran a successful RV dealership on Aurora Avenue North, and Mr. Smith spent his early years on a 10-acre estate in Alderwood Manor in Lynnwood. He learned to ride Tennessee walking horses so beautifully that cars would stop on the road to watch as he trained in the park, his mother, Mary Ann Ruffcorn said.

Horses "get their way about things, and he always did, too," she said, jokingly. "I just went along for the ride and did as I was told."

When his parents divorced, Mr. Smith moved to Mercer Island with his then partner, and graduated from high school there.

In his 20s, Mr. Smith ran with a young, hip crowd of disco fanatics who made a second home of the now defunct Monastery dance club in downtown Seattle, said his longtime friend Jaden Turner.

"He was the classic extravagant '80s aristocrat," she said: cultured, well-educated, well-versed in the finer things in life and not afraid to show it. "He considered anything north of Edmonds and south of Seattle country and non-relevant, and he would never go there."

But life opened his eyes. His friends began dying of AIDS, and it seemed he was going to funerals every other week, Turner said. And then Mr. Smith learned he was infected with HIV.

"When something bad happens to you, you see the other side and you want to help other people," she said. "He didn't just lay down and take it. He became this big activist."

Several times over the years, it seemed one disease or other threatened to claim his life. He developed AIDS, and various associated cancers. He suffered a stroke around his 40th birthday, and later developed kidney problems that required dialysis, his friends said.

Through it all, he never stopped helping, whether it was bringing a moving truck and boxes to help Turner and her son into a new home, delivering medical marijuana to nauseous AIDS and cancer patients, or testifying before the legislature on their behalf.

But heaven help you if you tried to help Mr. Smith without him asking first; it had to be on his terms, said Alan Mulkey, a childhood friend who knew Mr. Smith for 33 years.

Mr. Smith could make people laugh, but he also could put them in their place with a few firm words and a withering look if he thought they were trying to game him to get more pot than they needed, said McKee of the patient co-op.

His dedication to the cause spilled over into his car, which one friend described as "a disaster. There were posters, petitions, a walker, oxygen tank, a cane, coats."

Mr. Smith was a familiar figure at Hempfest, which named him the Washington State Citizen Activist of the Year in 2012. He carried himself with dignity: shoulders always back, and a clear gaze ready to meet anyone's eye, his colorful hats and accessories splashing color around handsome features made sharp by thinness that bordered at times on emaciation.

Mr. Smith was against the recent ballot measure that legalized marijuana because he thought it had too many problematic provisions. But he took some satisfaction in knowing that the legality question was finally addressed, Mulkey said.

After spending years living in fear of death, Mr. Smith seemed to have reconciled himself to it, filling out a Do-Not-Resucitate order and gave instructions on how he wanted his things divided up, his friends said.

Doing so helped him focus on what was always most important to him: other people.

"While he was on his deathbed, he was wiping his dad's tears away," Mulkey said. "Even on his deathbed, he was thinking of others."

During the last week of his life, there was a steady flow of visitors and never fewer than five people in the room, his friend Meighan Doherty of Seattle said.

A framed quote from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," sat at his bedside: "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."

In addition to his father, of Shoreline, and his mother, also of Shoreline, Mr. Smith is survived by a sister, Kathy Alexander of Everett, a half brother, Matthew Smith of Sacramento, and a grandmother, Irene Tillataugh, of Springfield, Ore.

Memorial for Dec. 29, at ACC Tech in South Park. The actual time and address will be available through the Hempfest.org website.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @susankelleher.



Ric Smith was a patient advocate in the state's medical marijuana movement.




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