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Reefer Badass

When it comes to cannabis crimes in the North Bay, you better call Omar

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The United States has clearly entered sea-change territory when it comes to cannabis policy. A handful of states have legalized recreational marijuana use and more than half have legalized medical use while others are poised to do so. And in what will be the real game-changer, California may legalize recreational use in 2016.

Change is in the air, and it smells sweet. Sonoma County attorney Omar Figueroa is right in the middle of it all, defending cannabis clients as they sweat out the last days of prohibition.

To that end, last week medical cannabis activists descended on Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on a bill called the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015 (CARER).

If enacted, the bill would accomplish three main goals outlined in that wordy title: expand access to cannabis (including pediatric access), pave the way for more research into its benefits and get the feds to lay off states that have legalized medical cannabis.

It's a big, detailed bill that would reschedule cannabis from its present federal "schedule 1" to a "schedule 2" category—undoing a Nixonian legacy of overreactions to hippie culture which decreed that cannabis had no medical value whatsoever and lumped it in with heroin and PCP.

In a country where 35 states have now allowed for some form of legalized medical cannabis—and where recent polls have found 80 percent of the population supports legalized access to medical cannabis—the bill has found support among what might be considered unusual corners. It's indicative of the times we're in: mainstream tolerance, if not acceptance, of cannabis.

Locally, Sen. Barbara Boxer supports the bill and so does Rep. Jared Huffman. But Roy Blunt? You never know.

Jacqueline Patterson, a West Marin–based cannabis activist, lobbied the right-wing Missouri senator's office last week—and recollected to the Bohemian that her lobbying effort made a Blunt staffer cry after Patterson shared her story about the medical benefits she has experienced.

We've come a long way, baby. California enacted the nation's first medical cannabis law in 1996 and has lurched through the ensuing two decades of scattershot enforcement, federal raids, black helicopters, street-side bong hits in Berkeley—and criminal-justice contradictions that have now come home to roost as the state anticipates its second legalization referendum in 2016.

Enter Figueroa, a Sebastopol-based attorney who specializes in defending clients against cannabis charges. He believes that legalization, should it come to pass in California, will be good for business—his included. He anticipates a day where his work may shift from defending low-level, nonviolent cannabis offenders to helping some of those same people comply with whatever the state legalization regime looks like.

In his vision, Sonoma County becomes ground-zero for a California "craft cannabis" movement similar to the sudsy one, and he sees opportunities for cannabis nature preserves, where visitors could "ingest and enjoy an ecotourism opportunity we have here in Sonoma County."

For now, he's trying to deal with what he calls "the folly of incarcerating nonviolent offenders in jails that are already overflowing, and that in Sonoma County have a significant Norteños stronghold," he says, referring to the notorious Chicano prison gang with NorCal roots.

Figueroa cuts a cool figure. The 44-year-old lawyer runs an office where visitors are greeted with aromatherapy options in the conference room. Getting busted is pretty stressful, and a drop of lavender on the temples—it can help.

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