Weed: the Elephant in the DA’s Office

by Mike Geniella, December 30, 2009

Former prosecutor David Eyster is jumping into the race for Mendocinogeniella-at-large County District Attorney, setting the stage for a robust debate over the county’s current zigzag approach to prosecution of marijuana and other criminal cases.

Eyster, a Ukiah attorney with a reputation as a tough, skilled prosecutor, is backed by a broad range of supporters from former police chiefs to champions of the late maverick DA Norm Vroman. Their shared concern is the lack of clearly defined prosecution standards in a county facing rising crime and a flourishing underground marijuana industry.

“The DA’s office these days is a rudderless ship,” says Eyster.

Ukiah Attorney Keith Faulder, a Vroman protégé who lost his bid to become DA three years ago, has thrown his support behind Eyster. “There’s no better candidate,” says Faulder.

Former Willits Police Chief Ron Caudillo of Willits, former District Attorney Duncan James and Raleigh Vroman, Vroman’s widow, are also endorsing Eyster.

Eyster presents the most formidable challenge yet to Meredith Lintott, the current district attorney. Lintott in 2006 had to wage a year-long battle against Vroman and later Faulder, who stepped into the race after Vroman suddenly died in the middle of the campaign.

Eyster is already taking an early lead in discussing an issue that other candidates tend to side-step: prosecution of marijuana growers.

A litany of excuses underscores the current pot prosecution efforts, from budget cutbacks in the DA’s office to legal confusion over conflicting county, state and federal enforcement standards.

It seems rampant commercial marijuana cultivation remains an uncomfortable subject in a county where the illicit cash crop dwarfs in value the combined production of big timber, wine grapes, or for that matter any other legitimate economic enterprise.

Eyster calls it “the elephant in the room.”

For instance current DA Lintott and candidate Matt Finnegan, a former Lintott deputy prosecutor before she fired him, discussed the issues as they saw them in an interview last week published in the Ukiah Daily Journal.

None of their published remarks addressed marijuana prosecution efforts. Instead there was the usual campaign fodder about “leadership,” “public safety,” “efficiencies” and “community involvement.”

In announcing his candidacy for district attorney, Eyster quickly addressed his positions on medical marijuana use, and lagging prosecutions of commercial pot growers.

Eyster said, for example, that he believes the “philosophical fight is over” regarding pot’s legalization for medical purposes, a step California voters took a decade ago.

“It is legally and morally wrong to prosecute patients who are trying to comply with the letter and spirit of the law,” said Eyster.

But Eyster said as district attorney he will aggressively target “able-bodied, for-profit pot growers” who have flocked to the county in recent years.

“I will vigorously prosecute the illegal profiteers and trespassers who trash our lands, kill wildlife, divert water resources, and make parts of Mendocino County dangerous places to live,” said Eyster.

Eyster is a skilled prosecutor who knows his way around a courtroom. He’s brash and confident, sometimes excessively so, say his detractors.

But ducking issues is not Eyster’s style. His entry into the race is likely to force a long-needed debate among all candidates on the adequacy of current marijuana prosecution efforts.

You can contact Mike Geniella at mgeniella@gmail.com.

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