“Stop Incarcerating Parents for Victimless Marijuana Crimes”

Busting Sonoma County’s Secret War on Weed

On April 3, 2015, Sonoma County’s secret war on marijuana confronted an unprecedented roadblock.  A freedom flash mob had gathered, overfilling a courtroom and packing the hallway outside. Nearly 100 upstanding citizens had taken off work that morning and made their way through a crowded security checkpoint to challenge the recommended four-year imprisonment of Yarrow Kubrin.  A tax-paying real estate broker, husband, and hands-on parent of two young children, Kubrin was due to be sentenced for a four year old victimless crime of a  “legal grow” operation that had violated a few technicalities of the state’s arcane marijuana laws.

Sonoma County had never seen anything like it.  Kubrin was unwilling to leave his family to walk quietly into the dark night of shameful criminality for a victimless crime. He was asking for help, and his community was rising up to support him.

Last fall, the Deputy District Attorney prosecuting his case had revoked her own plea bargain offer of probation but no jail time, as “too sweet a deal” for her supervisor. The D.A.’s office had requested that the judge sentence Kubrin to a prison term of no more than five and a half years.  Sonoma County’s Probation Department, it its probation recommendation, requested a sentence of four and a half years in prison, and three more years under its “supervision,” during which time,  Kubrin could be sent back for more jail time if he violated unrelated technical prohibitions like drinking alcohol or stepping foot in a bar.

Because Kubrin pled guilty (to avoid even longer prison sentences), Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau has complete discretion as to whether to sentence Kubrin to many years in prison or to allow him to remain with his wife and children, supporting them while on probation. So the air was tense in the packed hallway outside the over-filled courtroom, where Kubrin’s fate was being weighed. Rabbi George Gittelman of Shomrei Torah, the County’s largest synagogue, where Kubrin’s first grade daughter attends Hebrew School, joined scores of other professionals, relatives, friends, and fellow parents.

After a half hour, Kubrin emerged from the courtroom with his attorney, Chris Andrian, who stood on a bench to be heard by the large crowd. Andrian explained that Anne Masterson, the Deputy District Attorney for the case, was seriously ill with pneumonia and had been granted a one month postponement. (UPDATE: On May 5, Judge Chouteau rejected the D.A.’s five year request and sentenced Kubrin to one year in prison; coverage of this can be linked to here).

Attorney Chris Andrian addresses the freedom flash mob gathered in courtroom hallway to support Yarrow Kurbin. Photo by Jonathan Greenberg for the Sonoma Independent.

 

A few weeks later, on April 21, Kubrin’s wife Heather decided to go public with a plea for leniency. She launched a MoveOn petition that has received more than 1,000 signatures, entitled “Stop Incarcerating Parents for Victimless Marijuana Crimes.”

The petition, which can be read in full here, or signed on the right side of this page, says, I urge Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch and Probation Director Robert Ochs to stop recommending prison sentences for victimless crimes related to marijuana. I ask that they listen to citizens like me whose taxes pay their salaries and the ballooning costs of incarceration, and withdraw their five-year imprisonment request for Yarrow Kubrin, father of two small children, and others like him.  District Attorney Jill Ravitch campaigned on a slogan of ‘Keeping You Safe.’ Tearing parents from their families and incarcerating them for years for victim-less crimes like growing marijuana makes our families, and community, less safe!”  

The petition adds momentum to more than 80 letters that the sentencing judge has received requesting leniency.  Attorney Chris Andrian has practiced criminal law in Sonoma County for 40 years and is one of the region’s most experienced criminal attorneys. He observes, “Yarrow has broken the record for the most high quality letters of support I have ever received, both in the number of letters and the character quality of the people who wrote them—doctors, lawyers, business owners.  And I have never seen anywhere close to this many people taking time out of their lives to come to a courtroom.”

Andrian believes that local officials are not practicing criminal justice  in a manner reflective of the County’s  politically progressive taxpaying citizens.   In 1996, about 70% of County citizens voted for Prop 215 (which passed statewide) to legalize medicinal marijuana. More recently, in 2010, a clear 55% majority voted for Prop 19 (which failed statewide), to fully legalize recreational use. Yet, Andrian explains, “There seem to be more marijuana cases going through the system than ever before. There are an inordinate number of people in our prison system that are there for drug crimes.”

Yarrow Kubrin was arrested more than four years ago, a few months after making numerous cash deposits of more than $10,000 each in an Exchange Bank account that he had opened for his non-profit medical marijuana collective, which he called ‘The Higher Calling,” or “THC.”  After two banks had rejected his efforts to open a transparent legal account for a medicinal marijuana non-profit, Kubrin’s civil attorney personally escorted him to meet with a vice president at Exchange Bank to open an account. Neither knew that Exchange Bank is where a retired Sonoma County Sheriff’s detective, Mike Leonard, is now a Vice President, leading a three person team that reports large cash deposits to law enforcement.

Tracking revenue, keeping careful books and paying taxes on a collective’s deposits are required by the State of California’s obtuse medicinal marijuana law.   But paying taxes would seem to require a checking account, which, in turn, necessitates a bank account.  Kubrin thought that depositing money in a bank account, along with limiting the number of plants grown to the number of  patient licenses, and the size of his “canopy,” would make his grow operation conform to state law. But he was wrong.

In a Kafka-esque manner, depositing cash from any marijuana sales in a bank account violates state and federal banking law. Mike Leonard decided not to simply cancel Kubrin’s account, as hundreds of banks did to more than 1,292 marijuana-related businesses last year alone.  Instead, Leonard contacted his former employer, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. They obtained search warrants, and early one morning in 2010, teams of heavily armed law enforcement officers raided the pot farms.  They arrested everyone involved in the grow collectives, and confiscated all the money they found under the State’s draconian civil asset forfeiture laws, even pulling cash out of each individual’s wallets. They then hauled Kubrin off to jail.

In the eyes of Sonoma County’s District Attorney’s office, Kubrin’s charges were complicated by the “constructive possession” of never-fired firearms in his wife’s locked safe, for which he was charged with an additional felony.  Owning guns is legal in California, but not for Kubrin, due to a prior marijuana felony conviction for selling $500 worth of hashish to an adult undercover agent nearly 15 years earlier.

In its long presentation of Kubrin’s past and current charges, the Sonoma County Probation Department does not relate a single past or current charge that Kubrin ever harmed or threatened anyone, or that he grew on public land, or diverted water, or sold marijuana publicly or to minors.

“I have a slogan, pot for potholes,” Andrian says. “Here we have a County Government that cannot afford to fill its potholes, but they want to spend more than $50,000 a year to imprison a hard working father who pays taxes. I’ve shown Judge Chouteau Yarrow’s W2 forms for the last two years. Why do you want to send a guy like this to prison? You can fine him, you can put him on probation, you can make him do community service…but what do you want to take him out of circulation for, when he’s producing, and has young children that need him?”

In the interest of disclosure: this reporter was one of many fellow parents who knows Kubrin and requested leniency from the sentencing judge.  Stephen Ziber, a small business owner, was another.  “I am the father of two young children, age five and seven, both are classmates of Yarrow Kubrin’s children,” Ziber told the Sonoma Independent.  “I have known Yarrow for six years. He is a truly upstanding citizen. They are suggesting potentially three years away from his children. Three years away from a four and a seven year old:  those are formative years!   It’s clear that there is a nationwide shift in understanding and the role of cannabis both medically and recreationally Given all of the larger challenges in our culture and society today, to be using valuable or limited resources of police and law enforcement to go after victimless crimes is inappropriate, and I don’t support it as a tax payer—or as a parent.”

Public comments posted on Heather Kubrin’s petition express a fast-growing populist uprising against the use of taxpayer money on prosecution, incarceration and probation for marijuana offenses.  David Schwartz wrote, “The penalty should match the crime. Destroying lives and families over victimless crimes is draconian, especially since cannabis has been proven safer than both alcohol and tobacco. Please stop the insanity.”

Commenter Richard Hall noted, “This is an egregious WASTE of public resources. Ms. Ravitch should go after the REAL criminals. This case is a travesty. Disgraceful.”

Angelique Mullen called Kubrin, “a peaceful person and devoted family man, observing, “He has never hurt anyone. If you send him to jail, justice will NOT be served.”
“For his part, Kubrin has been deeply touched by the many people who have stepped forward to support him. Since his arrest, he has developed a thriving career as a real estate broker. His advice, now, to the thousands of growers who have made marijuana the largest cash crop in Northern California is this:  “Stay off the radar entirely–don’t be lured into the false paradigm that there’s safety in transparency.”

Kubrin reflects, “The wrongest thing I think is that we’re being told if you tack towards the light you won’t be treated like a cockroach. And yet the moment the light turns on they’re batting you with a shoe.”

In my written questions, I had asked Probation Director Robert Ochs a number of questions about Kubrin’s recommendation, as well as a few general questions, like how many Sonoma County inmates, in his rough estimate, had been sent back to prison, or had their probation term extended, for testing positive for marijuana. Director Ochs delegated my request to David Koch, Deputy Chief Probation Director, who replied via email, “As you are aware, Mr. Kubrin has not yet been sentenced.  Therefore it would be highly inappropriate for me to comment.  Perhaps after sentencing we can discuss your questions although I offer no guarantee of a response to any of the questions submitted thus far.”To better inform the public about why both the D.A. and Probation Department are insisting on jail time for Kubrin, the Sonoma Independent contacted the County’s top public officials responsible for administering justice.  Despite one week of lead-time, and clearly written questions asking about their general policy of recommending incarceration for victimless marijuana crimes, neither District Attorney Jill Ravitch nor Probation Director Robert Ochs chose to respond to my questions. Both County department heads are periodically quoted in the Press Democrat assuring the public that they support alternatives to incarceration, or that they pay little attention to non-violent marijuana offenses.

The Sonoma County Probation Department now spends $63 million those adults and juveniles on probation. I was disappointed that its Director, whose annual pay of $187,000 (with benefits costing taxpayers  $287,000),  exceeds that of a County Supervisor, seems unwilling to answer basic questions about the population under his “supervision.”

During the past four years, while crime against people and property has dropped to near record lows, Sonoma County’s Probation’s budget has increased by $16 million. It surprises many taxpayers to learn that the Probation Department’s budget has ballooned to nearly four times the size of the budget of the entire County Library system. Or that these libraries, serving 100,000 regular users, have been closed Mondays for the first time in a century due to a budgetary shortfall of just $1 million, a shortfall that Sonoma County, which is stronger than ever financially, cannot seem to find money to address.

Outside the courtroom for Yarrow’s sentencing, Kathy, a real estate client of Yarrow’s who manages corporate sales for a major telecom in this area, commented, “There are so many other ways to spend that money rather than cases like these, like libraries and social services.”  Kathy had taken part of the morning off work to join the freedom flash mob outside the courtroom. She said,

“It’s completely unfair.  Yarrow is a really good guy who was trying to do the right thing in a gray area of the law, and he’s absolutely done no physical harm to anyone. It sounds to me like a racket.”

The founder and Editor of the Sonoma County Independent, Greenberg is an investigative financial journalist with 35 years of experience with national publications. Greenberg writes a political blog that appears in the Huffington Post In 2015, he won two first prizes from the Greater Bay Journalism Awards for his coverage of the closing of Palm Drive Hospital. In 2014, he won first prize for analysis from Award competition for his coverage of the Monday closings of Sonoma County's libraries. He has been an investigative financial and political journalist for such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Forbes, New York, Money, The Bohemian, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Playboy, Self, Inc., GQ, The New Republic, and Alternet. He is also the author of several well-reviewed books. As a new media innovator who has developed a half dozen interactive web platforms and dozens of content-focused web sites, Greenberg is committed to enhancing responsive government and expanding media democracy. Greenberg is founder of Progressive Source Communications, a Sebastopol-based public interest communications company. In the past, he founded and managed two other online companies, TV1.com, and Gist.com. Greenberg’s political work included serving as Policy Director for the New York City Council’s Select Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment in the years following 9-11. His work resulted in more than $250 million of federal funds being re-directed to needy businesses and constituents in the impacted area. Greenberg has been Vice President of Fenton Communication’s New York office. His work on behalf of non-profit organizations has included communications consulting for Save Darfur, Stonyfield Farm, the ACLU, and the Lakota People’s Law Project. Greenberg holds a B.A. in writing from the State University of New York at Binghamton, and a Masters Degree in Law from Yale Law School, where he graduated with honors in First Amendment Law.
14 Comments on this post.

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  • Ben Boyce
    27 April 2015 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you, Jonathan, for turning over the rock on this hidden program of draconian marijuana enforcement by the county. We are all lulled into a false sense of security by the looming inevitability of cannabis legalization, but the dynamics of the criminal justice bureaucracy is driven by the need to justify the ever-increasing budget for law enforcement and the cruel and arbitrary system of probation. This ‘war on marijuana’ is not about public safety, but about highly paid careers of a platoon of committed ‘drug warriors’ who get paid to keep sending citizens convicted of victimless crimes through the over-crowded so-called ‘justice system’. Citizens ask why we don’t have money for essential public services like the county library. Here’s your answer; that money is being wasted to pay a law enforcement bureaucracy that is eating up ever larger shares of the public budget. This has to stop.

    Leave a Reply
  • Kai Harris
    27 April 2015 at 8:50 pm

    I so appreciate this article. It is heartening to hear of the outrage surrounding this case. My only hope, besides that Yarrow not be imprisoned, is that with the help of articles like this that awareness grows of the misguided publicly-funded entities that oversee the prosecution, incarceration, and probation for victimless crimes. May we reprioritize and fund that which will truly serve the Commons.

    Leave a Reply
  • Cat Kindschi
    28 April 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you for this article. I went to the April 3rd sentencing, because Yarrow asked, but I honestly didn’t know the real back story. I felt that if someone asks you to be there for something like this… you go… if you can. and I could. so I did. Having been there and witnessed the reaction in the courtroom with the influence of this community I truly hope that when I go again, on May 5th, that there will be a gentler sentence for him. I would like to see folks, who are trying to do the right thing not got prosecuted in this way.

    Leave a Reply
  • Miles
    1 May 2015 at 10:57 am

    Cannabis prohibition is not, and has never been, about public safety or health; that’s just the excuse. It is, and has *always* been, about wealth and power.

    Leave a Reply
  • Dan Smith
    3 May 2015 at 9:52 am

    Jonathan,

    The ‘war on drugs’ has always been a war on the poor and disenfranchised by the rich and powerful. This is another story of the many of lives that are wasted in the fruitless attempt to stop people from getting stoned and it points to the insanity of our culture.

    I attended the Sonoma County Barrel Auction Friday and saw hundreds of people who make their money selling a ‘legal’ drug that arguably causes much more harm than weed. They were also engaged in publicly consuming large quantities of it.

    It would be useful to know how much money this one case will cost the taxpayers when you add up all of the court costs, the police time, the jail time, the loss of productivity, etc. My guess is that the taxpayers will stop supporting this stuff if they really get how much they are paying.

    Leave a Reply
  • deborah LeSueur
    4 May 2015 at 7:42 am

    This is terrible. there is so much crime going on and this is what law inforcement is doing? Shame. Please stop this crime of persicuting inocent people and let this man go home to his family.

    Leave a Reply
    • Gus diZerega
      4 May 2015 at 4:20 pm

      Ravitch is the person who delayed ruling on Andy Lopez’s killing until after she was re-elected- and then found no reason to investigate the slaughter of a unarmed kid any further. The only reason we can expect decency from her is through pressure.

      Leave a Reply
  • Andreas Pessl-Bauer
    4 May 2015 at 5:28 pm

    Marijuana should not be illegal, and this good, positive man should not be put in jail. Please do the right thing and let him live his life.

    Leave a Reply
  • Reyna Olvera
    5 May 2015 at 2:18 am

    Yarrow is a class act, and always has been. He’s a man who should be with his family and not be encarcerated.

    Leave a Reply
  • Paulina Fayer
    5 May 2015 at 9:13 am
    • Amity H.
      5 May 2015 at 6:07 pm

      I wonder how many other victimless crimes like this are going through the criminal justice system, and why our tax dollars, in a county where the majority of people support not only medical marijuana, but full legalization, are being spent to prosecute this guy. Things are about to change in California, and these Sonoma County conservatives are going to have to pull back on pot people and find some other way of populating their jail cells. It’s beyond ridiculous. They should take a clue from Mendocino municipalities. Up there, they realize who is shopping in their stores, supporting their local events, and filling up their tax coffers. They don’t pull up arcane banking laws to bust their most peaceful and upstanding citizens. They actually work together with them to make sure the grows are legal and non-harming to others and to the environment. When are people going to wake up and realize that this is an herb from the Earth that’s helpful for people in so many ways . . . and stop demonizing it and the people who grow it. Stop the (local, state, and federal) war on marijuana!

      Leave a Reply
  • Ben Boyce
    6 May 2015 at 4:55 pm

    A year in jail means more than just lost time. It means that you’ll never get a decent job again, or be able to rent an apartment in a decent neighborhood, etc., etc. How will your wife and kids pay the bills during that year? This is still an injustice, even though some careerist prosecutor was denied her full measure of malice.

    Leave a Reply
  • Brady
    10 May 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Penal Code 29800 PC is commonly referred to as California’s “felon with a firearm” law. But it’s actually a much more comprehensive California gun law.

    Under PC 29800, three groups of people are prohibited from owning or acquiring guns:

    1.convicted felons,
    2. Anyone convicted of specific misdemeanors, and
    narcotic drug addicts.

    Leave a Reply
  • Brady
    10 May 2015 at 5:29 pm

    Point is. It’s no mystery why he was sentenced to a year.

    He was a Felon in possession of a firearm. Not just any firearm but a specifically banned AR-15 (not a clone) but an actual banned AR-15 as per CA guns laws.

    Maybe the gun laws need an update as well.

    Leave a Reply
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