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Marijuana plants seeds of violence in Wine Country

Gabino Lopez Santiago refused to join a marijuana-growing venture in the moments before he ran from a group of men and was shot and killed on a rural ranch in the hills edging Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley.

He had been partying with his brother-in-law who later claimed that he, too, had feared for his life when he was tasked with dumping Santiago's body 10 miles away.

The new allegations surrounding the Oct. 16 shooting were revealed in court documents and interviews, illuminating an argument fueled by alcohol and centered around the lucrative business of growing pot in gardens secreted away on sprawling properties.

But it also shows the real threat of violence in Wine Country, where the same soil that produces some of the world's most prized vineyards provides a fertile ground for marijuana, now fueled by confusing laws, regulations and enforcement.

As prosecutors prepare to try three men linked to Santiago's death, including his brother-in-law Ramon Velasco Lopez, the debate is growing over how to stem marijuana-related violence in Wine Country.

In Sonoma County, politicians want to provide for the distribution of medical marijuana but want stricter rules for dispensaries and producers and safety in both urban and rural areas.

Along Highway 101, law enforcement authorities target vehicles delivering marijuana, legally produced or not, from northern counties to the Bay Area.

Federal authorities, emboldened by federal laws prohibiting the use and sale of marijuana, ignore state medical marijuana laws and raid North Coast pot growers.

"How do you go back?" Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy John Blenker said of the door to legal marijuana production and sale cracked open by medicinal cannabis laws. "There's no going back."

Blenker patrols about 475 square miles of northern Sonoma County that span from the coast to the Geysers. The area is mostly agriculture and undeveloped forest of the coastal mountain range.


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