Marijuana Foes Fall in California Elections 3/8/02

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For the national media, the big story coming out of California's Tuesday primary elections was the stunning defeat of Richard Riordan, the Bush administration's choice to face incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in November general elections, by conservative Republican newcomer Bill Simon. While California marijuana advocates hailed Riordan's loss -- he had told reporters when asked about medical marijuana that he supported the federal law -- the real story for drug reformers lies in the results of some local races. For years, drug reformers have talked about making politicians "pay a price" for supporting the drug war. Now it appears to be beginning to happen, at least in Northern California.

According to a list made available to DRCNet by California NORML director Dale Gieringer, "medical marijuana supporters scored significant victories in several key races." Gieringer highlighted the following:

  • San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, author of the city's medical marijuana sanctuary resolution, won out over Harry Britt for the Democratic nomination for the 13th District Assembly seat. Britt actually ran to the left of Leno in the famously left-leaning city, said Gieringer, but never emphasized marijuana issues, while Leno did.
  • A double whammy for heavy-handed law enforcement in Humboldt County: Sheriff Dennis Lewis, an avowed foe of marijuana most notorious for running to the federal courts when ordered to return confiscated medical marijuana in the state courts, was defeated by challenger Gary Philp, while District Attorney Terry Farmer, a 20-year veteran of the post, was upset by attorney Paul Gallegos, who appealed to medical marijuana supporters during the campaign.
  • Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins, a follower of a cautious, law enforcement-oriented line lost to challenger Steve Passalaqua. Although praised by activists last year for working with them to set reasonable medical marijuana possession limits, Mullins had earlier drawn their scorn with the failed prosecution of medical marijuana growers and been mentioned as part of a wave of possible recall actions against recalcitrant state officials.
  • Butte County Sheriff Scott Mackenzie, known as a marijuana hardliner who bragged about his record pot seizures, was defeated by Perry Reniff. During the campaign, Reniff criticized Mackenzie for his enforcement priorities, arguing that methamphetamine was a much graver menace.
  • In Mendocino County, Libertarian District Attorney Norm Roman won a majority in a three-way race, thus freeing him from the necessity of running in the November general election.
"Now we have friendly DAs for the entire Emerald Coast, from Sonoma to Humboldt," said Gieringer. "That's a first. And we got Sheriff Lewis up in Humboldt, he's been a real bete noire of the medical marijuana movement," he told DRCNet. "Lewis has been a pain for a long time and while the defeated DA, Terry Farmer, was slightly more reasonable, between him and the narcs, it was pretty repressive up there. The new sheriff is an unknown quantity, but anything is an improvement over Lewis."

Gieringer is not ready for the medical marijuana movement to take credit for the defeats, though, but says the movement can take partial credit at best. A perusal of press accounts of some of the campaigns shows that drug policy was not a driving force in the races, and Gieringer agreed. "Medical marijuana and drug enforcement were not defining issues in any of these campaigns," he said, "but they did influence certain voters."

The medical marijuana issue certainly influenced voters in Humboldt County, said Marie Mills of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project (, a grassroots nonprofit set up to confront police injustices whose origins lie in complaints from citizens about helicopter harassment from the annual Campaign Against Marijuana Production, the harvest-time mass raids by Northern California law enforcement. "It had a big part in the change," she told DRCNet. "The DA and the sheriff were refusing to enforce the medical marijuana laws, and not only did that influence the election, in southern Humboldt it brought out more people to vote."

Sheriff Lewis generated popular resentment with his stand on marijuana, said Mills. "This is the guy who turned in Dr. Tod Mikuriya to the medical board. This is the guy who said he didn't want doctors coming to the area to recommend medical marijuana. This is the guy who ran to the DEA when the judge told him he had to give back somebody's medicine," said Mills. "This is the guy who just got voted out of office."

"There has long been a feeling that law enforcement up north has not been as liberal as the people who live there," said Gieringer.

That situation is changing and medical marijuana and drug law enforcement in general is now helping to generate that change. Being "tough on drugs" has long seemed like a winner for vote-hungry politicians, but these results from California suggest that the drug war no longer is a sure bet and that, yes, drug warriors can be brought down for their misdeeds. To what degree repressive positions on drug policy contributed to defeats for the candidates mentioned here is difficult to determine and probably relatively small, but the electoral power of the drug reform movement is beginning to bite.

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Issue #227, 3/8/02 Editorial: History's Dustbin | Swarthmore to Replace Student Aid Lost to HEA Anti-Drug Provision | Alert: Tell Congress to Repeal the HEA Drug Provision in Full | Breaking: Ninth Circuit Court Blocks DEA Hemp Rule | US Drug Warriors Waging Backroom Campaign to Put Their Man Serrano in UN Drug Czar Post | Drug Reform Groups and Paid Advertising: What Are They Getting for Their Money? | Marijuana Foes Fall in California Elections | Hawaii "Treatment Not Jail" Bill Stalled as Key Legislator Unveils Plan for Popular Referendum on Issue | Scotland Ends Drug War, Sort Of | ENCOD Letter to UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Annual Meeting | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, Virginia | The Reformer's Calendar

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