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California and the West | California Album: Ukiah

Mendocino Making Drug Policy Statement

Because of state and federal laws, a Mendocino initiative isn't likely to increase the marijuana harvest. But it could be a declaration of priorities.


They call it Mendo Mellow--quite rightly.

It's the brand name of sorts for Mendocino County's leading cash crop--marijuana. But it might just as well sum up the way of life in this vast expanse of redwood forests and picture-postcard towns in the great green north of California.

This is a live-and-let-live kind of place. With 84,000 residents spread over an area nearly the size of Los Angeles County, there's plenty of room for everyone's lifestyles and viewpoints.

Politics here is as wide open as the landscape, and people are often as colorful as the autumn leaves now turning in the vineyards. The Libertarian district attorney, for instance, was elected despite having served prison time for misdemeanor tax evasion, and was backed by both the National Rifle Assn. and the Green Party.

So it seems logical that a place where marijuana and unconventional people thrive appears likely to become the first in the country to allow the growing of marijuana for personal use. Measure G, an initiative on Tuesday's ballot, would allow residents to grow as many as 25 plants, though selling and transporting marijuana would still be crimes.

The initiative qualified for the ballot with 5,900 signatures, twice the required number.

"It has no organized opposition," boasted Dan Hamburg, one of the local Green Party members who drafted the measure. Hamburg said, "Everybody knows somebody who smokes marijuana. It's a major part of our culture."

Others say no groups have sprung up to oppose the initiative simply because, if passed, it would change nothing. State and federal drug possession laws would still apply, making the measure moot.

Measure G backers say its bark is more important than its bite. The initiative, they say, will be a statement against what they see as the wasteful, multibillion-dollar national war on drugs.

That goal has inspired even residents who don't smoke marijuana, such as fifth-generation cattle and sheep rancher John Pinches, a former county supervisor. "A message is going to be sent to the state and federal level that we have our priorities upside down," Pinches said.

A plain-speaking, stocky man who favors cowboy hats and boots, Pinches said he and other locals watch the futility of the war on drugs from their backyards. "I can see what I consider a misuse of money," Pinches said of the massive drug raids that are as much a part of life here as traffic jams in Los Angeles.

With marijuana still abundant in the area, Pinches dismissed the decades of drug eradication efforts in the so-called Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. "The only net result is that it drives the price of marijuana up. It's the best farm support program that the Feds have come up with at any time," he said.

In Mendocino County, being practical and conservative sometimes means doing what makes sense, even if it seems odd to outsiders. Take Diamond Jim's Sporting Goods-Liquor Store-Deli, a roadside shop in Ukiah, the county seat.

The store sells an array of locally produced microbrews and wines, homemade red potato salad, made-to-order sandwiches and rifles, pistols, shotguns and knives. "We've never been robbed," said owner Jim Tsarnas, explaining the wisdom of stocking guns in a liquor store.

Tsarnas has yet to decide on how to vote on Measure G, but said if he chooses to back the initiative, it is because he firmly believes in protecting individual rights. Tsarnas said he doesn't smoke marijuana, "but in America, you ought to be able to do just about anything you want, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else or the environment."

Tsarnas makes his point while standing over a counter topped by an autographed picture of Charlton Heston, with the inscription: "The doorway to all freedoms is framed with muskets." Next to him, a clerk named Freeman Burnstad rings up a customer's six-pack of beer on a cash register with two dispensers of paper for rolling cigarettes affixed to its side.

Burnstad, who will vote for the initiative, said he doesn't smoke pot, but his father does. He says many Mendocino residents share his view that marijuana is more like a farm product than drugs like methamphetamines.

In a region famous for its wineries and microbreweries, some also see hypocrisy in promoting alcohol while condemning cannabis. "If a guy's a wine grower, we give him an award at the county fair. If he's a marijuana grower, we throw him in prison," Pinches said.

Eric Shepard, a 20-year-old supporter of the initiative, agrees. "Other things, even alcohol, should be illegal before marijuana," he said while working at the Freedom Skate Shop in Ukiah. Wearing one of the store's T-shirts with an eagle on the chest, Shepard also disputed the argument that passage of Measure G would send a negative message to young people about drug use. "It's up to parents to keep their kids in line, not the government," he said.

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