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The State

Marin County Recall of D.A. Is Defeated

Election: Medical marijuana advocates suffer decisive setback at the polls but claim they lessened enforcement.

May 23, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marin County's district attorney Tuesday beat back an aggressive attempt by medical marijuana advocates to yank her from office.

Voters rejected a recall against Dist. Atty. Paula Kamena forged on claims that patients who use pot had seen their civil rights trampled. With most of the vote counted, Kamena was powering to a decisive victory, running ahead better than 6 to 1 in the low-turnout special election.

The recall drew intense interest in part because it was occurring in Marin, a famously liberal region that has for years backed marijuana as medicine.

In addition, the campaign had marked the start of a groundswell push by medical pot proponents against district attorneys throughout the state. Additional recalls are being weighed in five small counties where prosecutors are accused of undercutting the spirit of Proposition 215, the 1996 state ballot measure that legalized the medicinal use of marijuana.

Although they lost at the polls, medical pot boosters argued Tuesday that just getting the recall on the ballot against Kamena was a victory--and produced positive results.

Arrests of medical marijuana patients ebbed in Marin County after the recall qualified, they said. And some targeted prosecutors elsewhere have begun to ease off a tough stance. In Sonoma County, the district attorney recently agreed to a plan that would let patients cultivate up to 99 plants.

Law enforcement officials up and down California have grappled with Proposition 215's gray areas. Some have allowed patients wide latitude; others have hit hard against all but the most compelling medical cases.

Key to the quandary was the conflict between state law and the federal government's adamant opposition to medical marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court last week reaffirmed that hard line, but the practical reality may be limited because federal drug agents focus on major busts, not medical marijuana patients.

Kamena's recall emerged at a critical juncture in the debate. But the campaign was actually something of a fluke.

A group of parents angry over child-custody decisions in Marin courts ignited the recall last year. Their petition drive flagged, but medical marijuana supporters sensed an opening and revived the effort.

Kamena, 55, came out hitting hard. She called her foes "thuggish" and questioned whether the petition might have been fueled by illegal drug money. State elections officials last week announced they are investigating whether some petition signers may have been misled.

Backers of the first-term district attorney said Kamena had been compassionate and fair. Since taking office, Kamena has pushed one medical pot case to trial, though 10 more remain in the pipeline and 26 other defendants struck plea bargains.

In short, Kamena repeatedly stressed during the campaign, Marin County was forced to hold a recall--at a cost of $500,000--over about 0.0003% of her trial load.

"If you have people misusing the recall process to get elected officials to bend," Kamena said, "you have no justice."

Her foes countered that the medical marijuana policy set by Kamena--six mature plants and less than one-half pound of dried pot--is too strict. They argued that the district attorney cultivated an atmosphere of intolerance among police in Marin, where three of four voters supported Proposition 215.

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