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[whitespace] Kumari Sivadas and Doc Knapp
Pot Luck: Kumari Sivadas and Doc Knapp help run SAMM.

They are SAMM

Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana flexes political muscle

By Mari Kane

Marijuana smoke mingled with anticipation in the air of the Forestville home of teacher Marsha Cameron. It was one week before the 1996 presidential election, and a group of signature gatherers, educators, and patients were meeting to plan for the possibility of victory--the passage of Proposition 215, California's Compassionate Use Act.

Cameron brought the meeting into focus by announcing, "If Proposition 215 wins, our work is just beginning!" That night, the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana was born.

Now, after five years of dogged advocacy, the organization stands in the vanguard of the movement. Its work has helped make Sonoma County one of the most medical marijuana-friendly counties in the nation.

Next week, SAMM will flex its political muscle by holding a public meeting in which candidates for a range of local offices will debate their positions on marijuana in advance of the March 5 primary. Controversy over the issue has grown again in recent months as the Bush administration cracks down on California marijuana dispensaries.

Among the heavy hitters scheduled to attend the SAMM meeting are Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins and his opponent in the DA's race, Stephan Passalaqua, a deputy district attorney who opposes prosecuting medical marijuana cases. Santa Rosa Mayor Mike Martini and a representative of Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey will also attend.

What's the secret of SAMM's success? "Being a consensus-based educational and advocacy group is SAMM's biggest distinction," Cameron explains. "We made a commitment from the very beginning to only do what the law allowed. We didn't create a cannabis club because that wasn't part of the law."

Talking Softly

While the passage of Proposition 215 was igniting a national controversy, SAMM members were quietly arranging meetings with Sonoma County's Health Department, sheriff, and district attorney to hammer out protocols for enforcement of the vaguely-worded law.

"What impressed me was their willingness to engage in dialogue, not diatribe," Mike Mullins recalls. "I was struck by how diverse [SAMM members] were. They had a lot of representation and different viewpoints, and they were willing to listen to our concerns."

SAMM's first milestone was the peer review process, a verification system by which the Sonoma County Medical Association's Professional Standards and Conduct Committee determines if patients meet established criteria for medical marijuana use.

"Basically, peer review was set up to protect the doctors and to make them comfortable in writing approvals and recommendations," says SAMM member Mary Pat Jacobs, a teacher turned caregiver. "Before peer review was established, doctors were afraid to write recommendations."

Still, arrests of patients and caregivers continued in Sonoma County, and in the Spring of 2001 two test cases went to court. Jurors acquitted the defendants in both high-profile trials, sending a strong message to the district attorney's office to back off on medical marijuana.

One week after the second court defeat, Mullins and the county's police chiefs adopted SAMM's Medical Marijuana Cultivation Guidelines, which allow patients or caregivers to grow up to 99 plants with 100 square feet of canopy, producing an average of three pounds per year.

"The Sonoma guidelines were a real breakthrough," says Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "They are the most realistic guidelines adopted to date because they are based on growing area, which is much more closely related to yield than plant numbers. Already, the SAMM guidelines have replaced the old Oakland 144-plant guidelines as the favored model, and Del Norte County is seriously considering adopting them."

Now that SAMM's garden guide is official policy, Mullins says law enforcement's focus should be on garden robberies and associated violence. In fact, Mullins envisions going the way of Canada, where that government is under court order to grow medical marijuana for its citizens. "If we're going to adopt statewide standards, we should also enact state growing," he asserts. "We need to have a state ID system and a system for growing centrally with distribution by the state."

The Heart of SAMM

SAMM spokesman Doc Knapp and secretary-treasurer Kumari Sivadas are gathered around the kitchen table in their Sebastopol home stuffing envelopes. Knapp and Sivadas are both patients and retirees, and they operate SAMM's nerve center. They field approximately 25 calls from patients and would-be patients per week and send "Dear Folks" communiqués to SAMM's 600-700 supporters.

Because SAMM is not a cannabis club, Knapp says the organization is not afraid of threats from the federal government, even in light of the Drug Enforcement Administration's recent crackdown on the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center and other growers.

"Look, we met with the DEA's commander of the Sonoma County Narcotics Task Force and he said they weren't interested in prosecuting cases of less than 250-300 plants," Knapp explains with a shrug. "One hundred plants is the first line the feds draw, so we advise people to follow our guidelines and stay under the radar with 99 plants. At that level, the feds are simply not interested in Sonoma County growers."

But Sonoma County's five marijuana dispensaries are concerned about federal intervention, even though they argue that the DEA lacks jurisdiction in what some call a state's rights issue. Alan Silverman of Guerneville's Farmacy thinks the Los Angeles raids were the feds' attempt "to scare the pants off clubs."

"I don't believe the DEA will go any further once the they realize they don't have any authority here," Silverman says.

SAMM's upcoming meeting--which takes place Feb. 11 at the Rincon Valley branch of the Sonoma County Library--will vet local candidates with the aim of facilitating the election of marijuana-friendly candidates.

"The DA's office is critical for obvious reasons, but the county Board of Supervisor seats are also important," Knapp says. "We'd like them to sign off on the guidelines, but we haven't approached the current sups because we don't think they're receptive enough. We're just waiting to get new blood."

Among the candidates confirmed for the meeting are Fred Euphrat, an environmental consultant running against Fourth District Supervisor Paul Kelley. Last week, District Attorney Mike Mullins also agreed to attend and face off against Passalaqua.

"Knowing Mike is willing to show the public he cares about this issue just proves how far we've come," Sivadas says. "This meeting is going to be very interesting!"

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From the February 7-13, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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