Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has been busy since taking office in January, dealing with campaign promises and implementing new practices that are raising funds and eyebrows.
One of his most novel and controversial moves has been to allow people charged with felony marijuana cultivation to plead guilty to misdemeanor possession if they agree to pay a $50-per-plant eradication fee to law enforcement agencies. The defendants also are placed on probation for two years and sentenced to 100 to 200 hours of community service, depending on the number of plants they were growing.
The program is being hailed as progress by some and reviled as an extortion by others.
"There are a lot of mixed feelings," said Jim Hill, a member of the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board. He believes the new program is a good compromise.
So far, at least 31 people — all involved in cases that have lagged from years prior — have taken the deal and paid the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office more than $117,000.
If those defendants later want to grow medical marijuana, they will be required to buy medical marijuana zip ties from the Sheriff's Office at $50 per plant. The ties — optional for everyone else — prove the plants are certified for medical use.
It's a boon to the cash-strapped Sheriff's Office, which increasingly is relying on drug-related funds to balance its budget. It's hoping to raise more than $500,000 next year through a medical marijuana permitting program. This year it used about $450,000 in drug-related asset forfeiture funds to pay for overtime.
Those eligible for Eyster's new plea deals generally are first-time offenders and people who may have been planning to become legal by obtaining medical marijuana credentials, Eyster said. Profiteers and trespass growers are not eligible, he said.
The agreements not only generate income for law enforcement, they save the District Attorney's Office time and money, he said. They also save the defendants legal fees, Eyster said.
"It's a win-win program," he said.
Marijuana advocates and their defenders largely welcome the program as progress, but it also has raised concerns.
"I think it's commendable" that the charges are being reduced to misdemeanors, said Ukiah marijuana defense attorney Bob Boyd. But some of his clients see it as a payoff.
"People are saying 'I have to pay my extortion fee,' " he said. Another concern is that only people with enough money to pay can benefit, which seems contrary to the concept of equal justice, he said.
"It's a very odd and slippery slope," Boyd said.
The program is based on a little-known law that allows law enforcement agencies to recover the costs of marijuana eradication. But it may soon become more commonly used as other cash-strapped agencies search for new revenue sources.
"Other counties are asking me 'how did you get this going?' " Eyster said.
Eyster's approach is consistent with his promise to streamline marijuana prosecutions and halt what he said was the overcharging of pot crimes. He's also spearheading state legislation that would allow district attorneys to decide whether cultivation cases should be charged as misdemeanors or felonies. Currently, cultivation is a felony.
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.