Mendocino County Law Enforcers Say

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  1. By Don Thompson, Associated Press Writer
    Source: SF Gate

    Here in the Emerald Triangle, where marijuana sprouts like mushrooms from the forest floor, Mendocino County\'s two top cops see themselves as a buffer between drug agents and an often-freewheeling citizenry.
    District Attorney Norman Vroman and Sheriff Tony Craver won office two years ago with campaign pledges to set up one of the nation\'s first medical marijuana licensing programs.

    Their goal, they said, is to keep police from seizing legal pot gardens and hassling legitimate growers who register under a 4-year-old California law.

    Now both men are promising to enforce state and federal drug laws, in part to keep outside drug agents from stepping in after 58 percent of residents in this North Coast county voted last fall to bar police from targeting small-time marijuana growers.

    Measure G instructs county supervisors not to spend money pursuing those growing fewer than 25 marijuana plants, and directs Vroman and Craver to make enforcement and prosecution of small-time growers their lowest priority.

    No problem, they say.

    Neither the DA nor the sheriff has enough staff or money to go after those they call ``mom and pop growers.\'\'

    Not when drug cartels are importing armed workers to tend and guard thousands of marijuana plants hidden in national forests and other remote areas of the region.

    ``Twenty-five plants is a hellacious amount of marijuana. Some of the stuff they grow here, you can get two and three pounds off a plant,\'\' Vroman says. However, ``as a practical matter, nobody in the county got prosecuted for 25 plants or 30 plants.\'\'

    The only time arrests were made for small numbers of plants was when police were called in for other reasons, for instance on a domestic violence complaint, and saw the marijuana, Vroman and Craver say.

    That policy will continue, and should stave off any crackdown by outside drug agents in the wake of Measure G, they say.

    ``We still will arrest people who shove it in our face,\'\' Vroman says.

    ``I know damn well what you\'d see if we made a flat refusal to do it,\'\' Craver says. ``You\'d see a lot of political pressure, intervention, all kind of things going on here. No doubt about that.\'\'

    Both men think the biggest danger from marijuana isn\'t the drug itself.

    It\'s ``theft by people too lazy to grow their own, and wanting to make an easy buck,\'\' Vroman says.

    Craver, who\'s spent nearly 30 years working his way up through the Mendocino County Sheriff\'s Department, remembers a case about 15 years ago in which a local grower woke up to find thieves raiding his backyard garden.

    ``This guy\'s a former GI, so he puts on a military flak jacket, grabs a .44 magnum, goes out in the backyard and gets in a gunfight with these guys,\'\' Craver recalls. ``He wounded two of them, but everyone went to jail on that one. It was like the OK Corral: He\'s shooting at them, they\'re shooting back at him, they\'re trying to get over the fence with his dope. It was quite a deal.\'\'

    Things changed two years ago once Craver and Vroman started their medical marijuana licensing program.

    Since then, Craver\'s department has issued about 500 licenses to residents who produced a doctor\'s recommendation that they use marijuana to treat an ailment, or to those who grow the marijuana for them.

    Craver advises license-holders to carry the photo-ID card and post a large copy of the license near their garden so police won\'t inadvertently tear up the plants.

    ``We don\'t want to harass an honest citizen,\'\' Craver says. ``A lot of these people really are not criminals. These are people who really want to be law-abiding citizens. They have a legal right to what they consider to be medicine. It\'s not for me to question whether or not it has medicinal benefits -- I\'m not the doctor.\'\'

    Vroman settled on what he acknowledges are arbitrary limits on what growers can claim for their medical needs: 12 immature plants or six immature plants and two pounds of cured pot, though users are free to argue they need more to treat their particular illness.

    ``Both (Craver) and I got a lot of static from our compatriots that they thought we were crazy, but we\'ve reached a spot now where they\'re calling us to find out how to set up the program,\'\' Vroman says. ``So we\'re vindicated to a certain extent.\'\'

    Officials at the federal and state justice departments say they don\'t object to Mendocino County setting arbitrary limits for small-time users, though the federal government takes strong issue with California\'s medical marijuana law.

    ``We\'re not into punishing law enforcement for setting their own guidelines, so to speak,\'\' Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Jocelyn Barnes says.

    The DEA doesn\'t target users but will arrest anyone caught growing marijuana for profit or the illegal drug market, Barnes says.

    And claiming the marijuana is for medical use doesn\'t fly under federal law, which holds that there are no bona fide health benefits, she says.

    B.E. Smith of Trinity County, the first to challenge federal law using California\'s medical marijuana statute, wound up with a 27-month prison term in 1999 after federal prosecutors and a federal judge said U.S. law trumps California law.

    ``Marijuana cultivation and distribution are crimes under federal law, and we will continue to enforce those laws,\'\' John K. Vincent, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said through a spokeswoman.

    California voters\' support for marijuana as medicine has pitted the state and federal governments against one another.

    Attorney General Bill Lockyer, for instance, is backing an Oakland marijuana club in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The U.S. Justice Department, however, told the high court that distribution by such clubs ``threatens the government\'s ability to enforce the federal drug laws.\'\'

    Craver won\'t say if he thinks marijuana should be legal, an issue he calls ``a political hand-grenade\'\' -- even in Mendocino County.

    Vroman supports legalization as a member of the Libertarian Party. He won the unlikely support of both the Green Party, which supported the medical marijuana law, and the National Rifle Association, which loves Vroman\'s spirited defense of Second Amendment rights.

    That sort of incongruity plays well in Mendocino County, 120 miles north of San Francisco.

    ``The people up here are very accepting of anybody. They don\'t care who you are or what you\'ve done in the past, or what your agenda is now, as long as you do it without stepping on somebody else\'s rights,\'\' Vroman says.

    ``The attitude when I went to the DA\'s convention was kind of, \'Yeah, well, that\'s Mendocino County -- anything can happen up there.\'\'\'

    Complete Title: Mendocino County Law Enforcers Say They\'re Bulwark Against Drug Agents

    On the Net:
    http://www.canorml.org/news/mendoinit.html

    Source: Associated Press
    Don Thompson, Associated Press Writer
    Published: March 2, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
     

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