There's a reason why drug war opponents in San Francisco get angry when SFPD goes about busting low-level marijuana offenders: It's supposed to be against the law.
In San Francisco, voters and legislators alike have ruled that a $20 nickel sack is supposed to be police officers' "lowest priority," and certainly not enough to warrant an investigation from a veteran cop with nearly 40 years experience (some of it spent busting the same people who made medical marijuana legal) working undercover, that results in felony charges.
The man on the street in the Haight is new Park Police Station Capt. Greg Corrales. The 64-year old Vietnam-era Marine, a former head of narcotics, has been at the police station in Golden Gate Park since June, the Bay Citizen's Shoshana Walter reports, and has stepped up "buy-bust" operations in the area at the behest of police Chief Greg Suhr.
The crowd at Haight and Stanyan streets selling a High Sierra Music Festival-worthy pharmacopeia are nuisance to some, Haight-Ashbury landscape to others. But it appears the former perception is winning out, as residents and merchants are complaining about the young hooligans and wayward youth in greater numbers -- and SFPD is responding.
Corrales and other cops dress in street clothes and seek out marijuana salesmen. When someone unlucky enough to offer the Disney-jersey-clad cop a $20 dime bag, he or she is arrested -- and then charged with a felony by District Attorney George Gascón, the former chief of police.
Voters and legislators alike have asked cops to end these kinds of busts -- not once, but several times over the past 20 years. The Board of Supervisors first passed a "lowest-priority" ordinance, deeming it city policy for the Police Commission and chief of police to de-prioritize low-level marijuana busts, in 1992. Another version of the law, authored by now Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, was passed in 2006.
SFPD listened ... for a while. In 2006, then-Chief Heather Fong gave the law teeth when she issued a departmental bulletin. But under successor police chiefs Gascon and Jeff Godown, marijuana arrests increased. Statistics for arrests under Suhr's tenure have yet to be produced.
"We put it on the ballot in San Francisco long ago and citizens wanted marijuana enforcement to be the lowest priority for police," Ammiano said in an e-mailed statement. "Now, with Colorado and Washington going in that direction there's one upper officer who wants to play cops and robbers instead of worrying about real problems. People in the neighborhood have some fair complaints about what's happening there, but this is not going to solve it. We need real policy change on marijuana and shouldn't waste resources on a minor issue."
While many thought that lowest-priority meant marijuana was legal, others admitted at the time that it was largely symbolic. Drug-dealing -- the section of criminal code makes no distinction between $20 worth of marijuana or $2,000 worth of meth for sale, it's the same citation -- is still illegal, police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak pointed out. Cops perform buy-bust operations, and if it's marijuana and not something "harder," so be it: the law is the law.
"The department must respond to complaints of drug dealing and illegal activity and takes such complaints seriously," Andraychak said in an e-mail. "Drug dealing is a felony and there are usually associated side effects such as, blight, deterioration of neighborhood, robbery, turf disputes, gang issues and quality of life issues that arise as a result of street sales of drugs."
As it turns out, even when demanded by brass, these buy-bust stings aren't a big priority: there were five arrests for marijuana sales by Park Station police over the week of Dec. 14 to 21, all on Dec. 16, according to Corrales's most-recent station newsletter.
The real issue, as Walter reported, may be the people now in the criminal justice system for selling $20 worth of a substance that local law says is mostly benign and somewhat medical. Is a $20 sack worthy of a felony charge? Maybe, maybe not, but that is for now the law.