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Posted by: Kim_Hamilton on 05/02/2010 12:53 PM Updated by: thepinetree on 05/04/2010 03:36 PM
Expires: 01/01/2015 12:00 AM

Letter to the Editor~by Steve Johnson

"Calaveras County Cannabis Wars...The stage is set... The recession hit Calaveras hard in 2009. Budgets were again slashed, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) suffered. Among other cuts, all extra-hire deputies were released and one full time deputy position was laid off. Cutting from the top, Sheriff Dennis Downum released Gary Kuntz, a 25 year veteran and Lieutenant with the CCSO. Soon afterwards and with the backing of Supervisor Steve Wilensky, a medical marijuana supporter and Downum nemesis, Kuntz soon announced his candidacy for Sheriff. As Kuntz is an affable, well known, and respected, deputy in our county, the race immediately promised to be a serious contest.....

Dennis Downum, the stalwart embattled sheriff of Calaveras since 1995, shocked everyone by announcing his retirement. Worn out after a lifetime of law enforcement, small county politics, and his tireless efforts in the passage of county Measure J (new jail) including securing the state guarantees, Downum expressed concern that remaining in office might hinder the ongoing cooperation with the Board of Supervisors (BOS) for the project and he was ready to step down. Downum took a few parting shots at Kuntz, stating that he hoped a “a qualified, credible candidate will step forward." Downum explained that Kuntz had no ability to write grants (a staple of CCSO) and was the only administrator that was unable to calculate his own budget.

Enter, Ed Ballard, a captain in CCSO and current jail commander. Ballard is a well spoken, intelligent, and a knowledgeable lifelong resident who has worked extensively on Grants and the jail project. Downum immediately endorsed Ballard. The forces that have defined political contest in this county for the last several years, Wilensky vs. Downum, aligned themselves behind Kuntz and Ballard respectively for a final showdown.

While several important issues faced the candidates, the issue that peaked the most local interest and debate was medicinal marijuana. Many spoke to the candidates about the issue and local press and blogs were peppered with concerns. Special reports outlined what has long contended: there is an ongoing pattern of abuse of Prop 215 protected rights in Calaveras. Residents wanted to know if either candidate promised a change.

Marijuana in Calaveras...
While Deputy DA Seth Matthews contends that the DA’s office only pursues medical marijuana cases that they can get a unanimous verdict on, the reality appears quite different. In my research I have not found a single medical marijuana case to go to jury since the Harrison case. In 2000 a jury acquitted medical marijuana patient William Harrison of all marijuana related charges, finding him guilty of a weapons charge only. Prosecuted by now Acting DA Barbara Yook, Harrison was found cultivating 64 plants and in possession of 3 pounds of marijuana. The DA's failure to convict did not ice the active aggressive medical marijuana enforcement.

A public flare up occurred in February 2006, when the BOS approved San Andreas resident Kim Cue’s medical marijuana dispensary. Downum vehemently opposed the dispensary, stating ominously "I guess we have to see whether the feds trump the state." Downum let it be known that he anticipated the federal government will be coming to Calaveras County to seize the dispensary building, “just like in Roseville”. Taking the hint, Cue never opened her doors.

The BOS then approved the state's voluntary Medical Marijuana ID Card Program, which Downum supported. Local medical marijuana patients, wary of Downum’s support were opposed the program, even though state law promised that the program offered a level of protection from law enforcement and arrest. Local residents did not want to be on a list accessible by our sheriff. This fear was highlighted when the county announced it had only issued 12 state ID cards in 2006.

No dispensaries or store front collectives operate within county lines (despite board approval), home raids remain fairly common place (even if they result in no charges or are very small personal medical marijuana grows), and local agencies continue to confiscate and refuse to return legal medicinal cannabis. While the dispensary issue is admittedly still with the courts for a final decision, enough case law exists for the state Attorney General to issue guidelines for the legal operation of storefront dispensaries, as they operate statewide. In addition, returning of medical marijuana when there will be no charges was decided in the landmark decision in City of Garden Grove v. Superior Court that held seized marijuana of a legal marijuana patient must be returned upon dismissal of a case.

Of note are the counties of San Diego, San Bernardino, and Kern. All three counties maintained a position similar to our county in their aggressive anti-medical marijuana stance. San Diego and San Bernardino fought Prop. 215 all the way to the Supreme Court, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law did NOT trump state law for local agencies. Those counties now have store front dispensaries and have changed medical marijuana policies. Of course, some of their county residents have the financial and political backing to force their county to comply with the law. Calaveras, thus far has, not been so lucky. Our best hope to secure our rights may be this election.

In’s first Ballard vs. Kuntz online stream Q&A, Ballard stated personal possession cases “had dropped to nearly zero” since the passage of Prop 215 in 1996. Unfortunately, this is not correct. Calaveras County Superior Court reports that we average nearly 200 cases in which ‘possession of under an ounce of marijuana’ is charged per year. Kuntz’s has reported that the DA is sitting on potentially hundreds of unfiled marijuana cases. This represents a remarkable level of enforcement. To what end are we wasting our limited law enforcement investigatory resources and time? Enforcing bias over statelaw, especially when a case cannot be filed is harassment and violates rights of our citizens.

In March, 2010 the Enterprise reported that CCSO had raided the home of elected County Coroner and medical marijuana patient Kevin Raggio in 2008. Raggio’s disgruntled ex-girlfriend had “tipped” investigators that the coroner was growing and selling marijuana. There was also a suspicion that Raggio, as Administrator of Estates, was selling “estate” items on eBay. The raid netted a small quantity of marijuana, a dismantled indoor grow area, and a deceased person’s wallet. No charges were ever filed. Raggio was in within the law medical marijuana limits and Raggio vehemently denied selling “estate” items on eBay, stating that his ex-girlfriend, a subject of a domestic violence restraining order, was lying to police and that as administrator of estates, the wallet was an oversight.

The controversy continued when it was reported that the Sheriff, County Counsel, Raggio and his attorney, and select supervisors, including Wilensky, held a closed door meeting. Downum reportedly offered to make “the charges go away” if Raggio would step down. In Calaveras, the Coroner’s office is separate from the Cheriff’s office. Downum has worked hard to have that office and budget legislatively incorporated into the sheriff’s department. By Downum’s account, the BOS representatives had little interest in pursuing the Raggio investigation. The community was incensed at the Sheriff’s tactics and rallied behind Raggio. Published opinion was near universal in condemning the Sheriff in the case.

Then the Enterprise reported that a local medical marijuana patient and his attorney were preparing to take on the DA and county policy. K-Care Alternative Collective, a new, legally formed and registered collective owned by Larry and Michelle Bridges and Jay Smith, had been busted and Smith was indicted for felony possession for sales and other related charges. The collective was so new, the detective was their second patient, in response to an online advertisement.

The narcotics sting consisted of a Deputy Avila using the legitimate but slightly altered medical marijuana recommendation of Calaveras resident Robert Shaffer as a ruse to obtain verification as a legitimate patient in the collective. Avila had Shaffer’s valid recommendation because Shaffer had also been arrested on Marijuana charges by the Sheriff’s office. K-Care verified Shaffer as a legitimate patient and arranged to complete the patient transaction including paperwork and one ounce of 'White Widow'¹ cannabis. Deputy Robert Huffman posing as Robert Shaffer met with Smith and completed the required collective paperwork and medicinal transaction. When Smith failed to notice that the ID of the officer did not completely match the recommendation, deputies pounced. Warrants were then served at the residences of the owners of K-Care and a a subsequent felony case filed and is pending with the courts.

DA Tuttle explained that as part of an investigation officers “can mislead people, they can lie they can try to trick people.” Downum’s take was “With a collective there has to be a relationship of some sort. It can't be meeting somebody in a parking lot. In our opinion, you're just selling drugs.” ². Ironically, it is Downum’s policies and threats that create the atmosphere necessitating collectives "meeting in a parking lot", instead of operating out of a regulated professional dispensary.

Conversation in the county again grew heated. Even those who had no vested interest in medical marijuana were outraged. In a small county like Calaveras, the perceived “identity theft” by law enforcement to infiltrate a lawfully operating collective was an intolerable abuse of power. announced an online Q&A and the prime concern quickly become medical marijuana. Did either candidate offer a fresh approach to the Prop 215 issue? At the Q&A, neither candidate was adequately prepared for the issue. Ballard was a little confused on his facts but offered to study the issue further. Kuntz expressed his opinion that the Sheriff needed to coordinate with the DA to see which cases would be prosecuted, so deputies did not waste their time on pointless investigations. Alarmingly, Kuntz also stated “if they have a scale, we know they are dealing”. Both candidates demonstrated they were obviously equally ignorant of the Prop 215 issue.

A new tomorrow..
It has been suggested among the medical marijuana community that perhaps Kuntz is the more appropriate choice, if only by way of association with Wilensky. Equally, by way of association, it has been presented that Ballard is more conservative, being supported by Downum, and more likely to continue the aggressive enforcement in Calaveras.

These are dangerous assumptions as neither candidate has expressed indication that they have any understanding of the law or a grasp of issues surrounding medicinal marijuana. In the second debate, Ballard indicated deputies needed more “Prop 215 training”, showing that Ballard is at least listening to people and considering this issue.

It is important that both candidates continue to be pressed to understand the Prop 215 issue, the laws, and aligning our county with practical statewide enforcement. No matter who wins, we are entitled to our rights. As this matter concerns our rights as patients and as we have two qualified candidates to select from, I believe this issue: respecting the will of the California voter, the rights of our citizens to be free from senseless harassment, and compliance with state law, should be the deciding factor.

This is not a “liberal/conservative” issue. A large segment of conservatives in our community support medicinal marijuana rights, at a minimum understanding that this issue has already been decided by the voters and the courts. Many famous conservatives, such as Ron Paul and Glen Beck support not only medical marijuana, but marijuana legalization for personal use. We have a large libertarian contingent that support rights as well. Certainly, the Tea Party should support a states right issue such as this.

Therefore, I would propose the following:
1. Any necessary cuts to CCSO’s budget should begin with their marijuana enforcement programs. This is a waste of resources in this atmosphere. “Reefer Madness” is a luxury our county can no longer afford. Unless there is significant danger to our county residents or natural resources, such as a large grow in public forest land, CCSO has other priorities to pursue.
2. Both candidates need to affirm that as sheriff, they are adopting a written policy of non harassment of legal Prop 215 patients and a training program for deputies to ensure understanding the law.
3. Any seized marijuana from a Prop 215 patient should be returned if the case is rejected by the DA or dismissed by the court. This should be a fairly simple matter to handle at the sheriff’s office and should not be unduly cumbersome to the patient.
4. The Board of Supervisors should reinstate our “safe harbor” program for legal medical cannabis patients. Reinistating the 2 lb minimum as a safe harbor for possession and expanding a new cultivation safe harbor of 99 plants and 100 square feet provides a layer of insulation against local harassment of collectives and personal medicinal grows, is more in line with generally accepted prosecutorial guidelines (especially since People vs Kelly affirmed limits as unconstitutional), and represents more accurately the level this county may be willing to convict by jury. It may also facilitate an increased presence in the thriving medicinal marijuana market; important when our county faces over a 17% unemployment rate and a decimated logging industry.
5. Both candidates should affirm that they will allow a lawful collective and/or storefront dispensary to operate, without fear of locally induced federal interference or local interference, so long as they follow the requisite legal criteria set by our Board of Supervisors and follow the state Attorney General’s guidelines.
6. Both candidates should affirm they will follow state law and accepted practices and not federal law or personal bias in terms of medical marijuana.
7. Our acting District Attorney Yook should formally announce her policy in terms of which cases the county will pursue. This will aid the citizenry to maintain compliance with the lad and guide the CCSO, CHP, and Angels Camp police in enforcing the law. As we never elected her to represent our views as the people, she owes residents an explanation of her position.

An old soldier never dies, they just fade away and it is my hope that as Downum fades away, we can embrace a new more enlightened policy on the subject of marijuana in the county. More information may be found on the Calaveras Cannabis website at

I would like the thank for providing this county with an invaluable resource.
Steve Johnson,
San Andreas
Marijuana Advocate and Activist

End notes:
1. The medical marijuana strain “White Widow” confiscated by the CCSO is in high demand by end stage cancer patients and other very seriously ill or dying patients and is renowned for its medicinal and therapeutic qualities. Autistics are also known to reap benefits from White Widow.

2. Collectives in California are legal. Reasonable compensation reimbursing for expense, expertise, and time in cultivating medicinal grade marijuana is legal and affirmed in court and by 11362.765 H&S. The state AG has recognize the need to distribute the medicinal grade medicine in a controlled, professionally operated, and locally regulated business environment as the most efficient means of ensuring counties and patients are in compliance with the law. The CA Supreme Court has ruled that AB 420 guarantees the rights of collectives and cooperatives to operate (People v. Urziceanu). The appeals court has ruled that storefront dispensaries may operate legally (People v. Hochanadale­).

The Attorney General Guidelines state that store front dispensaries may be legal and these storefront cannabis collectives should operate as legal non-profit organization, pay sales tax, comply with local licensing and laws, verify that members are qualified patients, and maintain membership records and applications in order to be lawful operations. The fact these operations are operating in nearly every county should prove they are legal. "

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