The west Sonoma County barn fire that destroyed a marijuana cultivation operation and led to the arrest of three people has ensnared a member of the medical marijuana advisory group to the San Francisco District Attorney.
Joseph Erich Pearson, a co-founder of a cutting edge marijuana cooperative in San Francisco, is scheduled to appear in court Friday to be arraigned on three felony marijuana charges.
Pearson, 34, and two others were arrested Monday in connection with a large outdoor marijuana garden found on rural Mays Canyon Road property in the hills above Guerneville after the barn it was contained in burned down.
Advocates say the garden was for marijuana sold at the San Francisco non-profit club and was believed to be legal under California medicinal marijuana laws.
A Sonoma County sheriff’s sergeant said detectives had probable cause for the arrests based on suspicious evidence from the scene.
Detectives were told of the medicinal marijuana connection and the investigation is continuing to determine the status of the garden, said Sgt. Steve Gossett, who supervises narcotics investigations.
California law does provide for collective marijuana gardens, said Sonoma County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jamar. But a legal question for such an investigation includes whether any of the marijuana was being sold for profit, which is illegal, Jamar said.
Pearson, Alexander Pearson, 33, believed to be his brother, and Timothy Crites, 32, are due together in Superior Court in Santa Rosa.
They currently face possible prosecution on felony charges including cultivating marijuana and possessing marijuana for sale.
The case could help highlight the seemingly murky laws and inconsistent prosecution of medicinal marijuana cases in California.
“This whole thing is about the fact that (Sonoma) County has yet to regulate safe access for medical cannabis patient cultivation,” said Robert Jacob, proprietor of the Peace In Medicine Healing Center dispensaries in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
“Cultivation has become more and more of an issue in the county. I’m hoping this will help broaden the need to come up with something,” Jacob said.
Sonoma County’s law enforcement leaders currently are reworking their countywide regulations for medicinal marijuana, said Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver.
The chiefs have set some regulations in recent years but as the voters, laws and judicial interpretations have evolved, police agencies have made changes.
“It’s a very difficult situation for law enforcement,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Matt McCaffrey. The cases are “so individual in their nature, you have to look at each one in particular.”
Sheriff’s investigators learned of the garden Sunday night following the barn fire. The barn had housed an indoor marijuana garden and an overloaded electrical circuit from lamps for the garden probably sparked the blaze, officials said.
Joseph Erich Pearson owns the property. The outdoor garden there had 934 plants, from seedlings to four feet.
Jacob said his understanding was the Mays Canyon garden provided product for the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center, a non-profit agency started in 2001 by Pearson and others as a group of small collectives serving low-income medicinal marijuana patients.
“I’ve worked with him trying to implement medicinal cannabis regulations throughout the state on multiple projects,” said Jacob. “I think he’s a great leader in trying to provide access at low cost for patients.”
Among his Bay Area and statewide efforts on the topic, Pearson is one year into a two-year appointment to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Medicinal Marijuana Advisory Board.
Neither Pearson nor his co-defendants could be reached for comment.
Prosecutor Jamar said he couldn’t speak to this case as it remained under investigation.
But he said the District Attorney’s Office isn’t looking to prosecute legitimate medicinal marijuana users or producers.
Prosecutors focus on people using medical marijuana laws as a shield to engage in nefarious behavior, including making large profits from sales, he said. “That’s the audience we target.”
By RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011
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SF medical marijuana advisory group member faces charges in Sonoma County