The drug war soldiers on - Page 2

Why Tom Ammiano's well-meaning marijuana ordinance hasn't tamed the cops

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.

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