In case you missed it, there's been a fascinating little war of words over marijuana, prohibition and murder playing itself out in the pages of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat over the last few days.
On June 10, the Press Democrat carried a long feature by Ukiah-based reporter Glenda Anderson about a region-wide upswing in marijuana cultivation and marijuana busts. There was a sidebar accompanying the story; it was headlined "Marijuana industry blamed for jump in killings, robberies." In fact, this headline was misleading. Most of the article was about environmental damage wreaked by North Coast growers, the specter of foreign cartels and families "torn apart" by consumption of the demon weed.
Violence was cited only twice. Mention was made of a double murder near the eastern Mendocino town of Covelo last year. But the bulk of the story — the only thing that served to justify the headline — was an unsubstantiated quote from Humboldt County's own Sergeant Wayne Hanson, of the sheriff's Drug Enforcement Unit.
"If we average five homicides, four will be marijuana-related," Hanson told the reporter. "People are killing people because it's the same price as gold."
Really? Four out of five homicides in Humboldt County are marijuana related? To put it kindly, this seemed like utter nonsense to Ellen Komp of SoHum's Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, who responded with an understated yet fiery letter in Tuesday's PD. Hanson's statistics, Komp wrote, "...had no basis in fact." She added that she had spoken to County Coroner Frank Jager, and that Jager had reported that none of the three homicides the county has tallied so far this year had been marijuana-related in any way.
Reached Monday, Hanson said that his figures were off-the-cuff, but that he basically believed them to be correct. "That was just an approximate guesstimate," he said. "It may be lower. It's not an exact quote, because I have not studied all the stats in the last five years."
Well, to be fair to Hanson, it could be that he was thinking only of homicides in the county's unincorporated areas — homicides handled by his department, the Sheriff's Office. Six of the eight homicides in Humboldt County last year occurred within the Eureka city limits; none of them had anything to do with weed. There's a couple of unsolved cases — including the disappearance of SoHum marijuana advocate Chris Giauque — that may well have had something to do with weed. But the last cut-and-dried case anyone can remember that definitely did have something to do with weed was the murder of Whitethorn teen Sean Akselsen in 2003.
So it's safe to say that countywide, at least, Hanson's off-the-cuff numbers were badly wrong. Considering the Sheriff's Office alone, they were probably wrong. That's what Jager thinks: "They may have a lot of crimes related to marijuana, but we don't have a lot of homicides related to marijuana," he said Tuesday.
The backdrop of all this, of course, is the recent move by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors to call for the legalization of marijuana, a move that SoHum Supervisor Roger Rodoni has endorsed. Legalization would have two near-immediate consequences. It would all but put an end to any violence the illicit marijuana trade does engender, and it would see Sgt. Hanson assigned to other duties.
Comes now Gordon Kaupp, he of the San Francisco law firm representing the estate of one of last year's eight homicide victims, Cheri Lyn Moore. Kaupp called Tuesday after returning from vacation to say that his firm had now served papers on the Eureka Police Department and several individual officers involved in the events that led to Moore's death at the hands of the EPD. (See last week's "Town Dandy.")
What else did Kaupp have to say? Well, that he believed the defendants in the case — the EPD, its officers and the City of Eureka — were not that far apart, actually, and that he believed a settlement was eminently possible. He said that he was encouraged by the fact that the Eureka Police Department seems to have taken the matter seriously, and has made steps to get its officers trained in dealing with mentally ill individuals (as evidenced by new Chief Garr Nielsen's comments in this space last week).
It's not that financial compensation is off the table completely, but Kaupp said that his clients are very interested in ensuring the department undergo some structural reform. "There are two things about the case that our clients are interested in," he said. "One is to be sure that this will never happen again. But also a compensation for loss. One is the public interest, and the other is family harm, and the harm to Ms. Moore."
As regards the first part of the equation, Kaupp said, perhaps the EPD has already undertaken the work he and his clients would like to see. As regards the second, he said, the city could very likely put the matter to bed inexpensively with a settlement. The last time Kaupp's firm sued local law enforcement, in the Pepper Spray 8 case, the city and Humboldt County together (or their insurance brokers) ended up paying out upwards of $1.5 million in attorney's fees to both sides of the case.
It's an idea. Eureka City Attorney Sheryl Schaffner couldn't be reached for comment.
Now it's on to media news. First: Many congrats toMike Dronkers, John Matthews and the rest of our confrères at radio station KHUM for taking home an Edward R. Murrow Award for the nation's best radio documentary in a small market. The award was for last year's special program on methamphetamine use and abuse on the North Coast and was done in cooperation with public television station KEET-TV. It had previously taken the regional Murrow; Monday's news was that it had bagged the national Murrow as well.
Second: We got a call Tuesday from Mendo county homegirl Beth Bosk, who let us know that a new issue of the New Settler Interview had hit the stands. We haven't seen it yet, but the new issue sounds like classic NSI — a special issue on "medical marijuana lore," so named in the inimitable Boskian fashion. There's an interview with a Mendo pot doc who apparently doubles as a researcher; a "biodynamic farmer" (of course) in Comptche (naturally) who was raided by an out-of-county SWAT team; and a former Mendonesian who was once busted for smuggling weed but now designs weird science gear for U.S. Navy special ops forces. Awesome. The NSI, in case you've never seen it, is a living piece of North Coast history. You can get it for $2.50 at the Eureka Co-op, Northtown Books or Solutions.
Third: Yours truly was left to hold down the fort last week while the rest of the staff decamped to Portland for days of drunken revelry with our peers from across North America. So when I got the telephone call Saturday evening, I was inclined to take the news with several grains of salt — in other words, in much the same way that the colleague slurring words into my ear had already taken several margaritas.
But by Monday morning the bigwigs in Portland had evidently sobered up enough to issue a press release, and lo! It was all true. The North Coast Journal had been deemed worthy of admission into the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, journalism's most exclusive fraternity. Nineteen papers applied this year; only five were accepted. We made it through on the first round, but we were very nearly done in by the sickly remnants of our public service mission. Here's what the AAN membership committee had to say about the Journal: "[I]t's a little too rah-rah — take, for example, the story about the local food co-op and how wonderful it is for the community."
Hey, it was a slow news week! Luckily it appears that our team's heroic imbibery in Portland more than made up for our sometimes schmaltzy, substandard copy. But consider us duly chastised. I piss on the Co-op.