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December 28, 2005 - San Diego City Beat (CA)

Truth, Light And The Little Guy

The Issues We Found Terribly Important

By Kelly Davis

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Some of the stories CityBeat took a special shine to in 2005:

Pot wars -- While the city of San Diego did its best to embrace Prop. 215 (the 1998 state law that allows people with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana) by passing guidelines in 2002, this year county supervisors held fast to their belief that marijuana, even for medicinal use, is a bad, bad thing.

Last month, the supervisors decided to do something not even the most strident medical-marijuana opponent has attempted to do: overturn Prop. 215.

The county plans to file a lawsuit in federal court early in 2006, arguing that federal law -- which says marijuana is illegal and has no medicinal value -- trumps state law. California has the states'-rights argument on its side -- that a state should be allowed to enact laws for the good of its population. If the county wins, it'll be a blow to federalism. If the state wins, perhaps it'll spur elected officials to better define Prop. 215 so medical marijuana users have a safe, affordable way to obtain marijuana.

You can't bring up medical marijuana without mentioning Steve McWilliams. San Diego's most eloquent voice on the issue committed suicide in the early hours of July 12. McWilliams, whose marijuana collective was raided by DEA agents in 2002, was facing prison time when he killed himself.

Compounding that, terms of his bail forbade him to use marijuana, leaving him genuinely in pain, the result of a serious motorcycle accident that left him with crippling migraines. Three years passed from the time he was denied use of cannabis up until his death.

Barbara MacKenzie, McWilliams' partner of seven years, though never a target of prosecution, was also denied use of marijuana as part of McWilliams' bail agreement.

Shortly after his death, all charges against McWilliams were dropped and MacKenzie is again allowed to use cannabis to suppress the pain of degenerative disc disease.

A former nurse, MacKenzie has picked up where McWilliams left off, working to educate others about the efficacy of medicinal marijuana.

In November, she sent out an e-mail announcing that California Congressman Sam Farr had introduced the Steve McWilliams Truth in Trials Act, a piece of legislation that says individuals prosecuted in federal court for possession of marijuana can introduce evidence that not only do they use marijuana for medical purposes, but also, in doing so, are following state law. Currently, medical marijuana patients are forbidden to defend themselves with evidence that they legitimately use marijuana for a medical condition under auspices of state law.

Questions need answers -- This year we found out how difficult it is to get information from San Diego law enforcement when it comes to officer-involved shootings.

California has stringent laws governing the release of anything considered part of an officer's personnel file. And, both the San Diego police and county deputy sheriffs unions have sued to keep information away from the public.

No doubt it's painful for an officer to take a life, but it's painful for a family, too, when law-enforcement agencies keep the investigation into the shooting under wraps.

Nor will the family ever know whether revised training procedures were implemented as a result of the shooting.

Since he was shot and killed on April 4 by a San Diego police officer, Jacob Faust's family has struggled to get information, as has CityBeat, with little success.

After a routine traffic stop, police say they spotted what looked like a gun in the back pocket of the passenger seat of Faust's van. Officers say they asked Faust to get out of the car, and he resisted.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' review of the shooting offered this scenario: Faust was shot when he reached over to show an officer that the gun was a fake -- a stage prop Faust, an actor and puppeteer, used in a show. We believe Faust didn't know that when he reached for the toy, a second officer stood behind him with his gun drawn.

Three shots killed the 25-year-old almost immediately.

CityBeat talked to Lynne Faust in late November. She said she's realized the only way to get a full account of the shooting is to file a lawsuit.

Through an attorney, the Fausts have seen portions of the police investigation, which, Lynne says, has only left them with more questions.

Goodbye needle exchange -- In 2000, San Diego's needle-exchange program was deemed necessary by a task force of doctors and public-health experts in order to slow the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C that can be passed along through shared needles.

The Clean Syringe Exchange program began in 2002 with a grant-funded pilot program downtown, operated by the Family Health Centers of San Diego. Later, the program expanded to a North Park location where an RV would park for three hours one day a week where people could exchange dirty needles for clean ones and, if they wished, receive referrals for drug treatment and other social-service programs.

In order for a needle-exchange program to operate, local government must, every three weeks, declare a public-health state of emergency. On July 18, with a City Council of six, needle-exchange opponents Jim Madaffer and Brian Maienshein -- in whose districts the program did not operate -- voted against the state of emergency, effectively shutting the program down. An inaccurate editorial in the Union-Tribune said exchange of needles was continuing. James Dunford, who heads the program, said needle exchange ceased immediately after the vote and that the RV staff continued to hand out literature and make referrals. Dunford told CityBeat he hoped the program would be reinstated under a new mayor -- Jerry Sanders has said he supports the clean-syringe program.

The hokey pokey -- In a three-month period, animal-rights activists David Agranoff and Danae Kelley were sent to prison, then released, then sent back, and finally released.

The back-and-forth was the result of Agranoff and Kelley refusing to testify as part of a federal grand-jury investigation into an August 2003 La Jolla arson fire believed to have been set by the extremist Earth Liberation Front, a group neither Agranoff nor Kelley claim to have any association with. The two were among at least 10 activists subpoenaed by federal prosecutors to testify; all were believed to have attended a Hillcrest lecture by animal-rights activist Rod Coronado hours after the fire. Coronado said he was at home in Arizona at the time of the fire, preparing for his trip to San Diego.

Despite the grand-jury investigation and a $100,000 award offered by the FBI, no one's been arrested or detained in connection with the fire. And, as of this writing, Kelley and Agranoff remain free and, like us, confused over what the whole thing was really about.

Living wage leverage -- Passed on a 5-4 vote of the City Council, a living-wage ordinance eeked by before July's incredible shrinking City Council. City business interests hollered that such an ordinance -- which boosts pay and provides health insurance for low-paid city workers like janitors and landscapers -- would drive the city faster toward financial ruin. Donald Cohen, who heads the Center on Policy Initiatives, the left-leaning think tank that authored the ordinance, says it's a responsible law that will be phased in slowly and will lift these workers out of poverty.

Those families, he believes, will put money back into the local economy with their enhanced ability to pay for basic goods and services.

Riding the success of living wage, a few months later Cohen helmed a so-called "community benefits agreement" with Ballpark Village developer JMI. The agreement, approved by the City Council in October, ensures that the project will be a responsible one, incorporating job training programs, well-paying construction jobs, environmentally friendly building standards and affordable housing for a range of income levels.

Eminent domain pain -- On June 12, the Gran Havana Cigar and Coffee Lounge closed, the victim of eminent-domain laws under which the city labeled Ahmed Mesdaq's attractive establishment "blighted." In its place will go a 12-story Marriott Renaissance Hotel -- sure to bring in huge amounts of tax-revenue but utterly lacking the charm of Gran Havana. However, revenge is sweet: In late October, a jury awarded Mesdaq $7.7 million, which, under a pre-trial agreement with the city, will be paid by Marriott -- a mere sneeze for the mega hotel chain, but a huge victory for the little guy.

Will leadership light up the night? -- When 17-year-old Donna Hernandez was shot and killed in a poorly lit rec center parking lot, District Attorney Dumanis donated money to install new lights.

Meanwhile, a group calling themselves Barrios Unidos Hoy Organizados, or BUHO, had been rallying for months to get streetlights installed in some of the darker corners of Barrio Logan. CityBeat reporter Kia Momtazi took a nighttime tour of the area with BUHO members and saw what they were talking about.

Momtazi also talked to San Diego Police officials who told her that lack of street lighting doesn't mean increased crime. The move by the DA says otherwise.

And even if the police department is correct, some well-placed streetlights will at least give the residents of one of the city's more heavily populated areas some peace of mind. Time will tell how the next official elected to represent that area on the City Council responds to community concerns.

Conversion aversion -- A coalition of affordable-housing advocates led by environmental attorney Cory Briggs wants to see the city do a thorough study of whether the tidal wave of condo conversions taking place primarily in the North Park/City Heights/University Heights area are negatively affecting the environment and displacing low-income tenants.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre agreed in November that an environmental study is warranted; at that point, conversion of at least 11,000 units was planned.

The city's Development Services Department prefers to strengthen regulations with a condo-conversion ordinance, expected to come before a City Council committee in February, but Briggs argues that won't solve the problems that concern his clients.

While this debate ensued, condo converters, worried about a moratorium that might come with the kind of study Briggs wants to see, scrambled, over the course of just a few weeks, applying for permits to convert another 6,200 units.

What that means: In less than two years, more than 17,000 units either have been, or will be, removed from the rental market, adding to the glut of costly for-sale condos and leaving displaced tenants with far fewer options.

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