The drug war soldiers on

Why Tom Ammiano's well-meaning marijuana ordinance hasn't tamed the cops
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

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.

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