By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The contentious race for Sonoma County district attorney took a mellower tone Wednesday night as the two candidates assured a room of medical marijuana advocates they would not step up prosecution of qualified patients.
Two-term incumbent Stephan Passalacqua and challenger Jill Ravitch agreed to support existing law that allows medically prescribed cultivation and possession. They also said they would honor any new legislation that would open marijuana use to adults 21 or older.
“I understand there is a place for it and understand the law requires safe access in our community,” Ravitch said during the candidates’ fourth debate at the downtown Santa Rosa library.
Passalacqua told the crowd of more than 100 people that he knows “first-hand” that medical marijuana works and would continue a policy of not pursuing jury trials against people with valid doctor recommendations.
“We’re going to continue to give the benefit of the doubt to qualified patients,” Passalacqua said.
Both candidates gave more nuanced answers about their views on pot collectives, the return of seized marijuana and the expected November ballot initiative that would tax and legalize small amounts of pot for all adults.
Currently in Sonoma County, people with a doctor’s recommendation may possess up to three pounds of marijuana and grow up to 30 plants.
The Tax Cannabis initiative headed for the November election would allow an ounce for people over 21 and limited cultivation.
Under questioning from co-hosts with the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana and Americans for Safe Access, the two candidates were asked if they support its passage and what changes they would envision.
Passalacqua said the initiative seemed well-intentioned but posed problems for public safety because it leaves regulation to local authorities. Also, he said it would complicate practices for employers who receive federal money under drug-free workplace policies.
“That would be problematic,” Passalacqua said.
Ravitch said even with its passage, marijuana would remain illegal under federal law. In addition, she said there would still be vagueness about distribution.
Neither candidate would say how they would vote on the initiative but agreed to support the outcome.
Both agreed legalization would free up resources to concentrate on more pressing concerns, such as gangs and domestic violence.
“It’s going to completely change the law enforcement arena,” Passalacqua said. “We won’t be prosecuting these cases.”
On other questions, like the issue of returning seized property after charges are dismissed, the candidates responded they had no jurisdiction. It it up to law enforcement to do that, they said.
Ravitch, currently a prosecutor in pot-rich Mendocino County, said she would object to the release of contraband in cases involving illegal guns or other violence. But where possible, she said she favors the return.
Both vowed to continue an open dialogue with medical pot users and grant immunity from prosecution to those who follow the law.
Moderator Joe Rogoway, who opened the debate by asking the rival candidates to stick to the subject of medical marijuana, said he thought the event was enlightening.
“It’s important that people affected were able to see what each of the candidates’ positions are so they can make an intelligent vote.”