The Resistance: San Diego Style (Part 1)

By A.J. Herrington for the Candid Chronicle

Terrie Best, the current Chair of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), organized the Bonnie Bash. ASA is a national organization working to ensure access to safe and legal medicinal marijuana. The group has a reputation for creative protest and demonstrations that approach the level of street art.



As I wait on the curb outside the Hall of Justice on Broadway, I can feel the anticipation rise in the crowd milling about. It’s clear that two different factions are gathering. As more people arrive, they instinctively gravitate toward their comrades.

One group consists of men wearing khakis and polo shirts. They’re not really in uniform, but they’re obviously cops. Their badges are just patches sewn onto their polos.

A theme is evident among the assembly at the other end of the wide granite stairway. Most are wearing Mardi Gras beads, but of only one color: green. Several have parasols. Even more have homemade signs. Musicians, most with some fashion of horn, are tuning in the shade. Another carries a bass drum stenciled with “Euphoria Brass Band.”

Also arriving are the media, which I realize includes me. It’s July 2017, and I’m brand new to the writing game. Even so, I’ve been lucky enough to have several articles published by High Times in just a few months. Around me, television camera operators are setting up their tripods and squinting into their eyepieces.

“What are you going to do about those, Phil?” one photographer asks another, while pointing at some of the more colorfully phrased signs in the background of their shot.

Phil’s brow furrows as he shrugs, frowning. Apparently, he’s not too keen on showing “Bonnie is a Sadistic Pig” on the evening news.

Suddenly, the cops, who had been chatting in a loose circle, line up in formation. Standing at parade rest, they form two lines from the entrance of the building to the street, where a vintage SDPD museum patrol car has just arrived. A few yards behind it, a historic paddy wagon also idles.

After several minutes, people start to get anxious. One bystander notes the phalanx of police are completely blocking the sidewalk, something that wouldn’t be tolerated from anyone else. Another wonders aloud how much all these cops are costing the taxpayers.

“We’re all volunteers,” one of them says.

Finally, the doors open, and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis appears at the top of the stairs. The band immediately strikes up a tune. The musical style, if not the song, is instantly recognizable. Dixieland Jazz. People wave their signs and little umbrellas as they dance. But it’s not the bayou. It’s The Resistance, San Diego-style. And it’s come to drain the swamp at the Hall of Justice.

It’s the last day on the job for Dumanis, who’s decided to step down 18 months before the end of her term, to pursue the next step in her political career. The cops are here in appreciation of her years of law enforcement service. The dancers not so much. “Don’t let the door hit you in the butt!” reads another sign.

After Dumanis makes her way between the candy-striping cops, she ducks into the old-timey patrol car and it putters away. The dancers and players transition into marchers, forming a ragtag and boisterous parade down Broadway to the next light, and across the street for a lap back.

It’s quite a spectacle. An aging hippie walks alongside a man smartly dressed in top hat, bow tie, and cumberbun. His most obvious accessory, however, is the green oxygen tank on tiny wheels he drags behind him. Another man rides an electric scooter, at the moment opting for it over his alloy prosthetic leg.

I’ve just witnessed the Bonnie Bash, a mock New Orleans jazz funeral to celebrate the death of the Dumanis war on medical marijuana. I note how fitting it is that the row of young trees along Broadway are magnolias, each reaching up from its square yard of earth excised from the sidewalk.

Terrie Best, the current Chair of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), organized the Bonnie Bash. ASA is a national organization working to ensure access to safe and legal medicinal marijuana. The group has a reputation for creative protest and demonstrations that approach the level of street art.

Sometimes the creativity and spectacle doesn’t sit well with some people. Best said she received feedback from a few who thought the jazz funeral for Dumanis was morbid and in poor taste. But there is historical precedent for the ASA protest. Leading up to the American Revolutionary War, demonstrators staged mock funerals for King George to protest the tyrant’s taxation of the colonies.

Best explained why San Diego medical marijuana advocates are so happy to see Dumanis leave the district attorney’s office.

Dumanis is known nationwide for her tough stance on medical marijuana providers and patients. Cannabis advocates claim this is contrary to assurances made during her campaign for the DA’s office. Worse, they say, her actions have ruined the lives of many, and denied countless others access to their legal medicine of choice.

Activism seems to be in Terrie Best’s blood. Her profile pic on Facebook prominently features her bullhorn, which is always at the ready in the trunk of her car. It’s one of her favorite tools, not only at demonstrations, but on what is known as “raid response.” When a medical marijuana patient, dispensary, or other provider gets raided, it doesn’t take long for word to spread. ASA members mobilize to the scene with two goals. First, to assure anyone being detained that they have a legal defense and shouldn’t say anything or plead guilty.

Additionally, raid response is a great opportunity to hassle the cops with the bullhorn. Terrie admits to enjoying heckling, but never yelling at, the police. Screaming makes you appear crazy, she maintains.

“It’s just not a good look to yell into a bullhorn.”

Terrie and the members of San Diego ASA are looking toward the November elections, when Bonnie Dumanis is facing off against Nathan Fletcher for county supervisor in District 4. The group has launched a #NotDumanis social media campaign and recently encouraged spectators at the San Diego Pride Parade to boo Dumanis as she passed on her campaign float.

It’s a sentiment I’ll hear repeated often as I meet more ASA members over the next few months. I reached out to the Dumanis campaign office to give Bonnie a chance to tell her side of the story and got a reply from Jason Roe of Roe Strategic. Roe is a bigtime (think names like Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio) Republican political consultant.

But, he added, he was skeptical of anyone associated with the alternative weekly I mentioned I was considering to pitch the story to because it “doesn’t typically report news in a way that makes me glad I took the call.”

I had a hunch that meant a way in which he could doctor up some spin. My suspicions were all but confirmed by a proud admission on the company website: “Controlling the narrative is how we win.”

It looks like the strategy for controlling the narrative this time around was to delay as long as possible—genius! I wonder how much Bonnie’s paying these guys.

After a few more emails and a couple of missed appointments, I was finally able to talk to Dumanis on the telephone. She said that she didn’t agree with the medical marijuana community’s assessment of her performance as DA.

“I have always supported medical marijuana,” she said, noting she has close friends with serious medical conditions who have used cannabis medicinally.

She also pointed out that the role she is seeking now isn’t in law enforcement, and that times have changed.

“Now I’m running for the board of supervisors, and I think that the voters have spoken pretty loudly and clearly that they want recreational marijuana, so it is the law. I will uphold the law.”

That’s how Ed Rosenthal characterizes his 2003 prosecution by the federal government for marijuana cultivation. Rosenthal, who is known as the “Guru of Ganja,” was running an operation producing young plants under the auspices of a City of Oakland medical marijuana program. The plants were sold to dispensaries, which in turn provided them to patients, so they could grow their medicine at home.

Twice during my conversation with Rosenthal, he referred to The Tipping Point, the 2000 book by Malcolm Gladwell that attempts to explain how ideas, fashion, and other cultural elements become viral and quickly spread through society. Rosenthal sees himself as one of Gladwell’s Connectors, the kind of person who seems to know just about everyone, no matter the societal niche he finds himself in. Rosenthal is an icon of cannabis culture who’s penned several books and wrote a cultivation column for High Times for years. He has nurtured connections with activists, writers, publishers, patients, lawyers, and businesspeople. When the Feds came after Rosenthal, an entire community rallied to his cause.

One member of that community is Steph Sherer. In 2001, when she became a medical marijuana patient, Sherer moved from her home in San Diego to the Bay Area, where the nation’s only cannabis dispensaries were located at the time. After Rosenthal’s arrest, Sherer was moved by the fact that people were putting themselves at risk so that that patients like her had access to their medicine. She decided to create an organization to protect the rights of medical marijuana patients and providers. What she thought would be a six-month PR campaign has evolved into ASA. Sherer is now Executive Director, leading the organization’s efforts from its national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

From its genesis, ASA has prided itself in creative and humorous protest of the anti-pot machine. In an epic bit of trolling before trolling was a thing, even the group’s name conceals a barb designed to poke fun at law enforcement.

Sherer and the other activists she gathered together didn’t wait for the beginning of Rosenthal’s trial to get to work. Coordinating with groups advocating for the rights of patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other ailments, in June 2002 ASA put the federal government on notice. In 55 cities nationwide, mock “cease and desist” orders were delivered to DEA offices, calling for an end to the prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers. Although the orders had no legal bearing, they sent a message to the Feds: The cannabis community would not sit idly by while they persecuted sick people.

When Rosenthal’s trial began in San Francisco federal court in 2003, ASA staged public protests that bordered on theater. One morning, as people streamed into the courthouse, they were met by a formation of activists holding signs and placards. In a publicity stunt that’s been copied countless times since, duct tape covered the protesters’ mouths to call attention to what the defense was not allowed to tell the jury.

“There’s actually no such thing as a medical cannabis defense. Cannabis is illegal at the federal level, so in Ed Rosenthal’s case they couldn’t mention state law, they couldn’t mention the contract with the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, and all the jury saw was, basically, these guys are drug dealers,” Sherer explains.

Another demonstration during the trial took advantage of a grey and rainy San Francisco morning. From the windows of the high-rise federal building, those inside could see bright red umbrellas in the plaza below. Letters made of tape were emblazoned across the umbrellas, calling for those inside to deliver justice and “Free Ed!”

Although the efforts of ASA at the trial gained media attention and public support, their message didn’t reach the jury, and Rosenthal was convicted. But once the trial was over, ASA could contact the members of the jury directly. Immediately after the verdict was read, a staff member handed out business cards in the jury room, imploring them to get in touch after watching the news.

Within hours, a tearful juror called, claiming she had been duped by the federal government. That juror was encouraged to contact the others, and a revolt was born. More than half of the jury appeared on national news outlets such as CNN and Dateline, claiming the prosecution of Ed Rosenthal was a miscarriage of justice.

The reaction of the Rosenthal jury once they were given all the facts helped popularize the concept of jury nullification as a viable strategy in medical marijuana cases. Historically, juries had exonerated defendants for violating laws they felt were unjust or unfairly prosecuted, including the xenophobic Alien and Sedition Act, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Prohibition.

Jury nullification got a boost in San Diego from Mayor Bob Filner in 2013, when he held a press conference in support of San Marcos medical marijuana dispensary owner Ronnie Chang, who was being prosecuted in federal court. In his statement, Filner declared that “jurors have a right and even a duty to vote their conscience if they feel the government is engaged in injustice.” Between that and getting rid of red light cameras, Filner actually had a positive impact on local justice reform, before his term as mayor was abbreviated by his wandering tongue.

Even though Rosenthal lost the battle, in many ways he won the war, with ASA’s help. After all the publicity surrounding the conviction, many feel the San Francisco federal court was ready to wash its hands of the prosecution. At his sentencing hearing, Rosenthal was given one day in jail, to be satisfied by the time he had already spent in custody when he was arrested. He believes the work of ASA and other activists was instrumental in that decision.

Before I finish my interview with Steph Sherer, I ask if there’s was anything she’d like to add about the local ASA group. Even from her office in Washington, D.C., I get an unsolicited comment on our former district attorney.

“The San Diego chapter really had their hands full with Bonnie Dumanis, who was relentlessly against medical cannabis. The chapter stuck in there and provided support for people who were victims of Bonnie’s fight.”