Smoke and Smearers

Potheads distort the record -- and endanger the justice system -- as they try to recall the Marin DA

Of all of the underreported stories of 2001 -- the simian Evernet(1), secret BART tunnels(2), Hetch Hetchy reactor problems(3) -- the most egregious by far is the fact that marijuana smokers are lame losers.(4)

Before the Medical Marijuana Initiative, aka Proposition 215, passed in 1996, it was possible to note a person curled into a paranoid, catatonic ball, to turn to one's companion, and to say, "Look at the pothead; now there's a lame-o for you," and go on about one's business.

Now, though, when one sees a teenager staring endlessly at a light bulb, it's necessary to say, "Look at the poor, dear, nauseated, hangnail sufferer. Thankfully, there are drug pushers to ease his pain."

The underlying lie here -- that the medical marijuana "movement" is anything more than a bale of hokum meant to give drug profiteers broader reign -- may seem like a harmless one. But facile, harmless-seeming lies, when elevated into the realm of policy debate, beget more lies, which beget impunity, which begets corruption.

These facts came swirling through my brain like acrid smoke last week as I sat in a Marin hotel conference room witnessing District Attorney Paula Kamena take the ridiculous, degrading, yet sadly necessary step of campaigning against a recall initiative. Her offense: bringing a single "medical" marijuana case to trial out of the 73 such arrests by Marin law enforcement officers during the past two years. Following the passage of Prop. 215, Kamena had sought to find middle ground between voters' wish to allow legitimate patients to use marijuana as a medicine, and her oath as district attorney to uphold the law that makes marijuana possession a crime. For this she became the first of six district attorneys now targeted, statewide, for removal in recall petition drives sponsored by pot activists who hope to install officials committed to allowing residents to cultivate and smoke marijuana unfettered.

One needn't be as prejudiced against the doobied classes as I am to consider this anti-DA pogrom a threat to justice everywhere, and a menace to the fundaments of egalitarianism and democracy. It's possible to hold the personal belief that marijuana should be legalized, yet still be scared walleyed at the idea that well-financed groups might politically extort law enforcement officials into refusing to enforce controversial laws. America's been down that unseemly road before, with shameful results.

Federal troops had to be sent to Arkansas to enforce school desegregation, because local officials wouldn't. Southern Californians launched recall drives against judges who upheld the busing of students as a way of desegregating schools, even though the law of the land allowed busing as a remedy to entrenched discrimination.

We live in a democracy with state and federal legislatures constituted expressly to allow citizens to choose which laws society will live by. We have criminal justice systems whose purpose, ideally, is to ensure those laws are implemented evenly and fairly.

Most Californians -- or, at least, most Californians who smoke high-grade reefer in their Marin County homes -- rarely have to consider the broader ramifications of law enforcement that sways to the winds of politics. Sadly, people on much of the rest of the planet do; political classes the world over enjoy such luxuries as smuggling, larceny, and the killing of political enemies with impunity. America's not a corrupt dictatorship yet. But if localized political pressure can be used to nullify drug laws here, it can certainly nullify laws designed to protect ethnic minorities, or endangered species, or public lands.

Behind the effort to recall Paula Kamena is the vague and misleading language of Prop. 215, which puts law enforcement in a devilish quandary. The proposition grants patient status to sufferers of "any illness for which marijuana provides relief," a list potentially including boredom and fear of facing one's personal problems/addictive tendencies, along with such medically recognized uses as relief from glaucoma and AIDS-related wasting syndrome. Federal law, meanwhile, still considers all marijuana, medical or no, to be contraband and subject to seizure. State law likewise prohibits marijuana possession; Proposition 215 merely allows users the "medicinal use" defense at trial.

Given the ambiguities of the law on marijuana, enforcement philosophy has varied widely from county to California county, with some jurisdictions giving growers and dealers a free pass, and others making marijuana arrests, and then letting the medical-vs.-nonmedical issue sort itself out at trial. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to help untangle this mess when it hears legal challenges to the proposition later this year.

Kamena, as it happens, has been one of California's most reasonable officials in seeking to strike a fair approach to Prop. 215's contradictions. She established specific guidelines for prosecuting marijuana cases, including a county certification process permitting legitimate patients to cultivate and possess medical marijuana.

But the medical marijuana folk, who, as far as I can tell, are largely indistinguishable from ordinary marijuana folk, want more than that. Like other practitioners of the Politics of Base Urges -- gun nuts, death penalty advocates, etc. -- the dope activists have used lies and political extortion to further their goals.

A year ago, Kamena became the target of a group of family law litigants who had mounted a failed drive to recall three judges for allegedly overstepping their authority. Carol Mardeusz, who had been convicted by a jury of falsifying records in an effort to steal custody of her child, included Kamena as a late-hour addition to the recall list, apparently because Kamena's office was responsible for prosecuting her. The petition drives against the judges fizzled, but the anti-Kamena campaign took off when reefer advocates adopted it as a possible way to push Marin County to stop enforcing marijuana laws. The medical marijuana proponents gathered $15,000 in secret donations, hired signature gatherers, and launched a publicity campaign that characterized Kamena as an opponent of medical marijuana, a charge Kamena denies.

The petition itself -- still a relic of Mardeusz's all but forgotten family-court gripes -- made no mention of marijuana.

I've always wondered how promoting illegal drug use had managed to place itself toward the heights of the progressive pantheon, a position ordinarily reserved for vanquishing injustice, comforting the unfortunate, and toppling the mighty and cruel. I thought perchance a call to Lynette Shaw, founding director of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana and leader of the recall campaign, might shed some light.

Shaw rejects the idea that Kamena has sought to tread a reasonable path through the vagaries of California narcotics law. Rather, she sees Kamena as leader of a veritable police state, with shock troops routinely brutalizing citizens whose only crime is seeking medical attention for painful disease. Shaw says she is acting as a consultant to parallel DA-recall efforts in Placer, El Dorado, Shasta, Butte, and Sonoma counties.

By drafting guidelines that acknowledge that state and federal law still consider marijuana possession to be illegal, Kamena is encouraging Marin law enforcement officers to terrorize residents, Shaw says.

"She's violating the state Constitution; I think it's Section 2, Chapter 2 ... um, I'm going to get a copy of the state Constitution here on file pretty soon," says Shaw, before returning to more familiar ground. "She's violating Prop. 215, which says patients should be allowed to have their cannabis."

Shaw says she began the alliance after finding solace in marijuana for a laundry list of medical conditions. A long laundry list.

"I have chemical injury illness. I grew up in Antioch, California, where they manufactured DDT, fiberglass, and other chemically based products," Shaw explains. "I was formerly a battered woman; I was almost strangled to death. I have a shoulder injury that's a source of constant chronic pain. I had to go through abused women's services here. I got a lot of support. I will never be the same and will always hurt every day of my life. I can't take common medicines they prescribe for this. I have to live in Marin County, a pollution-free area. I'm always having allergic reactions. The use of cannabis really helps to strengthen me. I think it balances me out, or strengthens my immune system -- actually I have a hyper immune system. I used to have anorexia. It seems to reduce the symptoms of having a hyper immune system. If someone sprays pesticide, I have an allergic attack. I'm shaking. I'm ready to throw up. My boyfriend will run and get me a joint. I'll take one hit -- it's a bronchial dilator -- and I can relax, I can breathe, the swelling reduces. One hit will reduce a lot of these symptoms, and it reduces the panic. It treats the panic and anxiety along with the physical symptoms. Also, eating the brownies with marijuana was also good for me. It balances out my system. Now I can even go to L.A. with all that smog. I can be less of a woman in a bubble, and if a car drives by, I don't faint. I really just want to be a normal person. I tried everything -- everything. I was on disability, I was on welfare. It was very frightening, and the doctors couldn't figure out what was going on. Finally I found a doctor who believed me. He started me on macrobiotic brown rice, then we started on cannabis, and that stopped it."


If Shaw and her Marin pothead allies succeed in toppling district attorneys from here to Oregon, they would, quite simply, degrade law enforcement.

Marin Sheriff Robert T. Doyle, for one, told me that he would turn to the state Attorney General's Office if marijuana users manage to install a district attorney who refuses to enforce the law. There's an attractive prospect -- state shock troops enforcing laws, because local jurisdictions refuse to do their duty. The alternative, a Humboldtization of California where local officials corrode into lawless lackeys of armed-and-dangerous marijuana entrepreneurs, seems equally unsavory to me. With Kamena and other rural district attorneys as a precedent, the recall mechanism might cease to be a mere method for removing public officials who fail to uphold their oaths of office. "This kind of thing, if it snowballs, will become a threat to district attorneys around the state," said retired Marin Superior Court Judge William Stephens when I spoke with him last week.

Then there's the simple danger of allowing stoners to dictate how California is run. Fairfax, a town some residents fancy as a monument to counterculture, provides ample warning that this would be an awful fate.

"There's leftover burnouts who pretend they're the heart and soul of the town. They're working hard to climb down the social ladder by being too lazy to succeed at anything and trying to make some kind of religious experience out of it," notes Peter Ethridge, who lives not far from Shaw's office in Fairfax. "I'm 50-plus years old. I experimented with every drug under the sun as a kid. The one thing I know is, you have to keep chemicals out of the hands of children. It wrecks their lives before they even live them. In a family town such as Fairfax, I'm amazed that people haven't run them out of town. I'm surprised what that little activist has been able to do."

If Shaw succeeds in expanding her two-tokes-over-the-line universe beyond Fairfax, she would do much more than just make it easier for Marin County residents to get stoned. She would put California's justice system on notice that it enforces locally unpopular laws at its own peril. She would institute, as a matter of law, reefer madness.

(1) A theoretical wireless data network run by and for lower primates.

(2) Allegedly unused BART tubes connect Vallejo, San Mateo, Sausalito, Stockton.

(3) Core #34-PXJ5 is vulnerable to hackers.

(4) The aforementioned "unreported stories" were invented to trap potheads into a "Duuuuuuuuuuuude" holding pattern. Our valued non-pot-smoking readers are urged to disregard and read on.

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