Medical marijuana backers, DA split
May 29, 2004
Derek J. Moore, Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua is at odds with medical marijuana activists, who were among his staunchest supporters when he ran for office two years ago.
The activists say Passalacqua reneged on a campaign promise not to prosecute medical marijuana cases.
Passalacqua denies the allegation, but abruptly canceled a meeting last week with the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana after its complaint became public.
In a six-page letter, the group pointedly accused the first-term district attorney of 'prosecuting petty medical marijuana cases that have no business taking up court time and resources.'
During his campaign, Passalacqua promised to 'stop prosecuting nonviolent crimes,' singling out medical marijuana cases as an example.
He says he has kept the promise since taking office 17 months ago, and was ready to discuss the issue at a meeting that was set for Friday.
'I called the meeting in good faith to receive their input,' Passalacqua said. 'However, based upon the inaccurate assertions in their letter, I didn't feel the climate was appropriate to have a meaningful discussion.'
Eight Sonoma County residents who claim they use or grow marijuana for medical purposes currently face felony charges brought by the district attorney. Some had expired physician-approval cards or no cards at all, while others allegedly exceeded the county's limit on how much marijuana one person can grow.
Activists claim that the county narcotics task force, with the district attorney's blessing, is cracking down on people based on technicalities, in some cases seizing entire marijuana crops or leaving too little to be of any benefit to medical users.
But Passalacqua said his views have been misrepresented, and reiterated his support for Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative allowing medicinal use of marijuana.
Passalacqua said the pending cases reflect prosecutors' doubts that the defendants complied with of the law.
'If new information comes later we re-evaluate the case and look at each one on its merits,' he said. 'We've done that. We have used our discretion and we have dismissed cases.'
But the activists contend that the fact charges were even filed is a sign Passalacqua isn't the compassionate person he portrayed himself as during his bid to unseat Mike Mullins in 2002.
'Are they going to get patients on any technicality or have compassion and acknowledge simple human error and not drag people into court for that?' asked Doc Knapp, a spokesman for the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana.
The group has had ongoing meetings with lower level officials in the District Attorney's Office as well as with Sheriff Bill Cogbill and others in his department.
Friday's meeting was to include former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who testified for the defense in a marijuana case filed by Mullins. The defendant in that case was acquitted.
Hallinan, who accompanied the group for its meeting with Cogbill, didn't return a call seeking comment.
Knapp, whose group has been at the forefront of the local medical marijuana movement for several years, said the abrupt cancellation doesn't mean activists are at a loggerheads with law enforcement.
'The climate's always right to talk about sick and dying patients,' Knapp said.
The issue is the latest skirmish over the state's medical marijuana law, which has been criticized as vague and conflicts with federal laws prohibiting the use of pot for any purpose.
Activists estimate Sonoma County has several thousand physician-approved patients qualified to cultivate, obtain and possess marijuana for their own use. About 450 people have registered with the district attorney and the Sonoma County Medical Association under a program that is supposed to keep them safe from prosecution.
Under a state law enacted last year, users or primary caregivers may possess no more than eight ounces of dried marijuana. Additionally, they may maintain no more than six mature and 12 immature marijuana plants per qualified patient.
But the law, signed by former Gov. Gray Davis, also allows local governments to set their own limits. Sonoma County allows up to three pounds per year per user and up to 99 plants, limits that were in place before the state law was passed.
Passalacqua said he is 'evaluating' whether the limits need to be lowered in Sonoma County, a view expressed by other law enforcement officials.
'We do have a particular standard that we've enjoyed,' Assistant Sheriff Gary Zanolini said. 'However, the state mandate is less than the standard here. We have to come to some understanding.'
Zanolini said the Sheriff's Department isn't targeting medical marijuana users, calling the cases in question a small fraction of drug enforcement efforts in Sonoma County.
'People get really focused on medical marijuana, thinking that's the majority of claims out there. It really isn't,' he said. 'We've done a better job of avoiding those.'
Knapp's group opposes a reduction in allowed amounts and is vigorously fighting to maintain the status quo.
'The three-pound guidelines we've had for three years turned out be a formula that worked well,' he said. 'If we backtrack from that, patients are going to be suffering or busted for producing the amount they really need.'
Among the pending Sonoma County cases, three people had expired physician approvals. One had approval from an acupuncturist but not a physician. In another case, two people obtained approvals after they were charged with possession and cultivation.
The size of the crop was the main factor in two cases, one involving Cazadero resident Nick Johnson, who says he is a provider for five medical users.
Sheriff's deputies raided Johnson's home in October and confiscated all but one of 99 mature pot plants after determining that the crop exceeded 500 square feet -- 100 feet for each patient. The county allows a maximum of 100 square feet.
'I had exceeded my limitations, maybe, but they were wrong in taking everything,' he said. 'They shouldn't have taken all the plants.'
A preliminary hearing is set for next month.
Despite the possibility of jail time, Johnson said he is growing marijuana again while seeking to register with the district attorney.