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Sonoma County's top prosecutor and the challenger seeking to unseat her signaled widespread support for medical marijuana at a candidates forum Wednesday. But the pair occasionally diverged on how to police a drug that is legal for medicinal use in California but also generates criminal activity, in part because it is banned elsewhere and at the federal level.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch and her challenger, Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan, told a roomful of medical marijuana advocates in Santa Rosa that they did not believe in prosecuting legal users, including not-for-profit collectives and cooperatives.

But Shanahan, a deputy prosecutor in Ravitch's office, challenged the D.A. on her record, a contention that seemed to be shared by many in attendance.

"There needs to be transparency," Shanahan said. "We can take a leadership role. We need to move from a reactive office that is playing catch-up on a daily basis to a proactive office."

Ravitch said her office has made prosecutions of nonviolent marijuana growers and users a "low priority" and was only targeting criminals.

"What we're focusing on is the cultivation and sale of marijuana that is associated with trafficking, with particularly interstate trafficking, and with violence," she said. "And I just can't make it clearer to you, or to the community at large, if it appears that we are prosecuting legitimate cases, bring it to our attention."

When the forum's moderator, former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, asked for a show of hands if anyone either knew someone who had been prosecuted or had been prosecuted themselves for medical marijuana use, most of the more than 140 people in attendance signaled yes.

"I set the policy," Ravitch said. "I'm very concerned about all the hands that went up in the room."

Ravitch said she is unable to show statistics on who gets prosecuted for marijuana use by her office. She said the lack of data would be remedied in January with the implementation of a $2 million record-keeping system.

"There's no way to distinguish cases that might involve cooperatives and collectives or individuals who are potentially legitimate patients who've been charged improperly," she said.

In the most contentious moment of the forum, in which the candidates found much common ground, Shanahan challenged Ravitch on the record-keeping.

"We can capture marijuana cases and figure out what ones were filed and what weren't," she said.

The forum was sponsored by the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana, Americans for Safe Access and Citizens for Responsible Access, a newly formed lobbying group.

While some in attendance said the distance between the views of the candidates was small, they were convinced many legal users were being prosecuted despite Ravitch's assertions.

"She says that it's not happening, but she can't show us the statistics," said Sarah Shrader, chair of the Sonoma Chapter of ASA. "It's disappointing."

Advocates said events like the candidates forum were critical because there was a lot of misinformation about medical marijuana use, even among law enforcement.

"People don't understand it," said Siobhan Brady of Glen Ellen, who said she was prosecuted by Sonoma County despite being a legal medical marijuana user. "We have a lot of work to do."

You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.