The drug war soldiers on

Pub date May 22, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz


It’s been five months since the Board of Supervisors passed Sup. Tom Ammiano’s ordinance directing the San Francisco Police Department to make cannabis busts its lowest possible priority.

But is it safe to say San Franciscans can openly smoke, grow, or distribute cannabis without being harassed by law enforcement, as the nighttime talk show hosts and news pundits are fond of pronouncing?

Eric Luce, who’s worked as a public defender in Jeff Adachi’s office for the past four years, doesn’t think so. He’s seen a spike in recent cannabis busts and has eight open cases right now involving small-time marijuana sales.

"They’re being charged every day," Luce said. "This is a fairly new phenomenon, and I think it’s linked 100 percent to getting felony conviction rates up."

One of Luce’s clients, a Salvadoran émigré, already faced a stacked deck without trouble from the police. She’s an HIV-positive, transgender woman with a history of clinical depression. During a string of undercover operations conducted by SFPD narcs throughout March and April, an officer approached the woman (Luce requested that the Guardian not publish her name), asking if she had crack.

No, she said, but she did have a little pot, what turned out to be half a gram, hardly enough for a joint. The officer offered $5 for it, but she declined and turned to leave, declaring that she’d rather just smoke it herself. So he raised his offer to $10. She said yes and was arrested.

More than a month later, she remains in jail, and although she was granted amnesty in the late ’80s and has spent the past 25 years in the United States, Luce said, the arrest threatens her immigration status.

In another recent case, three men were arrested at Golden Gate Park in early March for allegedly selling an eighth of an ounce to an undercover narcotics officer. All told, police claim the trio possessed a half ounce between them. One defendant spent a month in jail for it, and Luce’s client, a homeless man named Matthew Duboise, was only released after Luce persuaded a judge that the officers had searched him illegally.

If Luce’s clients otherwise accept guilty pleas simply to get out of jail, District Attorney Kamala Harris gets to characterize these pleas as felony convictions of drug dealers — a significant distinction during an election year — even as she claims publicly to back the concept of low priority. Like so much about the drug war, Ammiano’s ordinance, joined by a handful of other piecemeal legislative attempts in California to soften prohibition, creates as many questions as it does answers.

How would police officers officially make cannabis a low priority? Could they look the other way without sanction? Does the SFPD even care what city hall decides if federal agents continue to insist through their actions and words that possessing or using cannabis in any form is still against the law?

In recent weeks we contacted the defendants in three additional local cannabis busts, ranging from large to small quantities, but none of them would speak to us even off the record about their cases, fearing a backlash at pending court hearings. So we visited the very unsophisticated criminal records division at the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street for a crude statistical analysis of recent marijuana charges filed in the city.

Using the hall’s record index, we conservatively estimated there were well more than three dozen cases filed by the District Attorney’s Office since the beginning of 2007 involving violations of California’s Health and Safety Code, section 11359, felony possession of marijuana for sale. The tally is just for simple drug charges, and that doesn’t even count cases with accompanying charges, like weapons possession or violent assault.

So where are all these cases coming from?

Sharon Woo, head of the DA’s narcotics unit, points out that Ammiano’s legislation specifically exempts "hand-to-hand sales" in public places and was amended — notably at the 11th hour before its passage — to include such sales "within view of any person on public property." She said most of the cases we identified, like the two mentioned above, involved an SFPD response to grumbling from residents about drug sales in certain neighborhoods. The resulting undercover sweeps net 20 to 50 suspects each time.

"The [Police] Department is really answering a community request for assistance, and we’re prosecuting based on the information they give us," Woo told the Guardian. "When it’s in an open place, a public place, we treat hand-to-hand sales of marijuana as seriously as any other type of crime."

Those are only the cases for which there’s a paper trail. Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association (SFPOA) and a former narcotics officer, told us police in the city are more than likely to simply book confiscated marijuana without filing charges against the suspect to avoid paperwork and the perceived inevitability by the SFPD rank and file that Harris won’t prosecute small-time users or growers, at least not with the zeal they’d prefer.

That means the index we scanned wouldn’t reflect instances in which police simply confiscated someone’s pot — possessed legally or illegally — or cases in which a suspect was never arraigned in court but still endured being ground through the criminal-court system. And it’s worth mentioning that at least under city rules, a qualified medical marijuana patient can possess up to eight ounces of dried cannabis, a considerable amount.

Delagnes says marijuana should be fully decriminalized. "But if somebody calls us and says, ‘Hey, look, there’s a place next door to me, and it stinks like marijuana to high heaven, and I just saw a guy in the backyard with 50 marijuana plants,’ what are we supposed to tell the guy on the phone? ‘Tough shit’?"

What’s remarkable is that San Francisco has been through all this before — 30 years ago. Local voters passed Proposition W overwhelmingly in 1978, demanding that law enforcement officials stop arresting people "who cultivate, transfer or possess marijuana."

Dale Gieringer, director of California’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said San Francisco all but forgot Prop. W. So how do you prevent the same thing from happening to Ammiano’s ordinance? "You don’t. Law enforcement is unmanageable," Gieringer said. "You have to get state law changed. The only way I know to get state law changed is you … try to build up local support before you finally go statewide, which is exactly what we did with medical marijuana."

Gieringer, who helped Ammiano’s office pen the most recent law, said it was modeled after a similar Oakland version, which explicitly made an exception for street sales. "We were protecting private adult cannabis offenses with the understanding that we didn’t want marijuana sold in the streets, which has been a real problem in Oakland and other places," Gieringer said. "You get all of these neighborhood complaints."

But in another case we reviewed from court records, a suspect named Christopher Fong was pulled over in January near Harold Street and Ocean Avenue and arrested for allegedly possessing five bags of marijuana.

He had a doctor’s recommendation but no state-issued medical cannabis card, according to court records. Under Proposition 215, passed by voters more than 10 years ago, you still don’t need a license to prove to officers you’re a cannabis patient, a fact Woo from the DA’s Office didn’t seem fully aware of during our interview. San Francisco state assemblymember Mark Leno simply created the license system in 2003 to encourage law enforcement to stay off your back with the right paperwork.

So despite each of California’s awkward lurches toward decriminalization, without a complete, aboveground regulatory scheme, users still exist in a form of criminal purgatory, and demand for cannabis still spills onto the street. The most anyone can pray for is being confronted by a cop who happens to be in a good mood that day.

"It still comes down to the discretion of the cop," Ammiano told us.

His law nonetheless quietly represents something that few other decriminalization efforts have in the past: its premise does not hinge on the notion that cannabis possesses medicinal qualities. It simply says taxpayers are weary of spending $150 million statewide each year enforcing marijuana laws and clogging courts, jails, and the probation system with offenders.

The ordinance also includes the formation of a community oversight committee composed of civil liberties and medical cannabis advocates. They’ll be responsible for compiling arrest rates and obtaining complaints from civilians in the city who believe they’ve been unfairly accosted by officers.

"I think [the department] would be more likely to take it seriously if they received a lot of complaints about what they’re doing," said Mira Ingram, a cannabis patient and committee appointee. "So I’m hoping with this committee, we’ll be able to bring all of this stuff out and be a sounding board for people who have problems with [police]."

Ammiano’s office told us the ordinance simply codifies what was already the prevailing attitude in the SFPD’s narcotics unit. But it remains doubtful as to how far the cannabis committee could go in forcing fundamental changes in department culture, especially considering the committee couldn’t punish officers for vioutf8g the lowest-priority law or even for refusing to provide detailed information about individual cases.

"Until we can change that culture, it’s not going to go away," admits Michael Goldstein, another committee appointee. "It would be my hope that … eventually we would have some empowerment to forestall and limit what they do in that regard. But you understand what it takes to completely transform an organization like that. It ain’t gonna happen. I’ve been around [San Francisco] for 30 years."

While Delagnes told us that he’s not altogether opposed to the idea of repealing prohibition, the SFPOA has attacked local officials who publicly support cannabis users, a signal that even after an entrenched, decades-long war against narcotics, the Police Department may be a long way from making marijuana a truly low priority.

Police commissioner David Campos, an aspirant to the District 9 supervisor seat now held by Ammiano, drew fire from the SFPOA when he recently criticized a regular antagonist of the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries, an SFPD sergeant and particularly aggressive drug cop named Marty Halloran.

"Commissioner Campos said Marty Halloran has no business being a police officer," Delagnes angrily told the commission in April. "Oh really? Well, for someone who has obviously dealt with this situation with a complete lack of integrity and has failed to act in a fair, impartial, and objective manner, I believe the opposite is true of Mr. Campos, and perhaps you should not be sitting on this commission."

Does that sound like an end to prohibition looms?

For Luce, the most alarming recent trend is officers finding a homeless street addict as a hook to direct them toward a more prominent dealer. When the arrest occurs, both are charged with felony possession of narcotics for sale.

"That’s not the point of these undercover narcotics operations," he said. "The point of them is to go after hardcore sellers. And what they’re doing is targeting the most vulnerable people out there, these addicts. It’s a way for the police to say, ‘We’re arresting dealers.’" *

Sam Devine contributed to this story.