Calif. Pot Advocates Target Kamena

In most places, district attorneys are bounced out of office if they appear too soft on crime. In this liberal county, that logic could be reversed.

Marin County District Attorney Paula Kamena faces a recall vote on May 22 in part because advocates of medical marijuana argue she is too tough on marijuana smokers.

At issue is Proposition 215, the law approved by California voters in 1996 that allows people to use marijuana for medical purposes provided they have a doctor's permission.

Implementation of the measure has proven difficult, however, since it is vague on where patients can get marijuana, how much of it they can possess and who is qualified to grow it.

County officials have varied widely in how they approach the issue. Some work closely with distribution clubs that sprang up after Proposition 215 passed and others take a harder line.

Kamena says she's been unfairly painted as a pot prosecutor. Since she was sworn in as Marin County district attorney in January, 1999 medical marijuana cases have made up a tiny percentage of her office caseload — 73 out of more than 30,000 — and most were dismissed or ended in plea bargains.

Kamena says she's declared that her office won't prosecute if individuals have no more than six mature or 12 immature plants and a half-pound of dry marijuana.

But opponents say, far from being lenient, Kamena's guidelines follow federal law, which considers marijuana a contraband and effectively gives police a license to confiscate it, whether or not they make arrests.

``Every joint, every gram, every leaf, anything they can get their hands on, it's `Ha, ha, ha, the DA says this is all against federal law,''' says Lynette Shaw, director of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana and a leader in the recall campaign. ``It's been really mean, and it's hurt the health of hundreds of people.''

The alliance, based in the small town of Fairfax, doesn't just want to get rid of Kamena. It has a list of five other county prosecutors organizers want turned out of office.

``This could be the start of something,'' says Chuck Thomas, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which is not involved in the recall.

Kamena says the problem is that Proposition 215 is ``very convoluted and very complex. It is, in short, a mess. The idea of people who are ill who can benefit from marijuana — I don't have an issue with that at all.''

Dennis Peron, who wrote Proposition 215, disagrees. ``The only people who have any trouble understanding the law is the cops and the district attorneys. What it is they don't understand is compassion,'' he said.

In Marin County, a liberal enclave of stunning views and breathtaking home prices just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Proposition 215 passed with 73 percent of the vote. Eight other states have authorized the use of medical marijuana.

The recall petition against Kamena began on a quite different issue; it was started by parents angry about child-custody cases in Marin courts. That drive fizzled, but medical marijuana advocates later took up the cause, getting enough signatures to force the election, which is expected to cost $500,000.

The wording of the petition remains limited to the child-custody complaint and Tom Van Zandt, a patent attorney, is running for the job if Kamena is turned out of office.

Forced to campaign a year ahead of schedule, Kamena has been busily listing her achievements, including working to improve official response to sexual assault victims and opening a center where children who may have been sexually abused can be interviewed in a homelike setting.

``The question is, 'Do I deserve to be fired?' And my answer is, 'Absolutely not.''' Kamena says.