Mental health and marijuana took a lot of the focus at a candidates’ forum Wednesday at the Opera Hall in Sonora, where two dozen people vying for eight elected positions gathered.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau sponsored the forum, which featured candidates for Sonora City Council, Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, Superior Court Judge, State Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives. Each of the 24 participants gave a brief introduction during the strictly moderated forum, offering some personal background and hitting on a couple of issues before fielding questions from the audience.
Speakers touched on issues including jobs, education, regulations and others. But Sara Herrin, who is in the midst of a legal battle over a medical marijuana collective she co-founded, continuously pressed candidates on local and state laws on the medicinal marijuana throughout. And David Axelrod, who is running for City Council, asked about local mental health services in the wake of Tuolumne General Hospital’s closure.
Participants included Jim Hildreth, Sherri Brennan, Liz Bass, Jim Garaventa and Randy Cofer for Board of Supervisors District 1; John Gray and Nolan Matter for Supervisor District 4; Karl Rodefer, Domenic Torchia, Jim O’Neil and Mick Macomber for Supervisor District 5; Axelrod, Ron Stearn, Connie Williams and David Sheppard for City Council; Gregory Oliver, Eleanor Provost, Alex Aretakis and Donald Segerstrom for two judge seats; Rico Oller, Frank Bigelow, Marc Boyd and Tim Fitzgerald for Assembly District 5; and Jack Uppal for Congressional District 4.
A number of candidates came out opposed to medicinal marijuana on both the state and local levels. Oller said “voters were wrong” to approve Proposition 215, which legalized medicinal marijuana in the state, and he said the measure has allowed people who are not sick to have access the drug.
Sheppard was more blunt, calling Prop. 215 a “red herring for people to sell dope.”
“We don’t want these things,” said the city councilor.
Matter and Hildreth took similar stances, questioning the value of medical marijuana dispensaries and holding that they do more harm than good. And while Gray said the state law allows people to grow the plants with a card, he said it’s not local government’s job to “set up a facility.”
Cofer said he supports “decriminalization” of the substance, while Garaventa said the issue isn’t a local one, since the substance is still against federal law.
“That fight’s at the federal level,” Garaventa said.
Both Oliver, the head of the Tuolumne County Counsel, and Bass, a supervisor, pointed out they’ve been involved in drafting some initial local regulations on the marijuana collective issue, but any local action can’t happen until a state Supreme Court case on the issue is settled.
On mental health, a few of the Board of Supervisors candidates questioned the closing of Tuolumne General Hospital’s psychiatric floor. The longtime public hospital was closed by the county in recent years as a cost-saving measure. But the facility was the only local psych ward that had the capacity to hold people who are a possible threat to themselves or others, complicating the process for severe cases.
Cofer said re-opening the psychiatric floor would “be appropriate,” and Torchia said the hospital “was sabotaged.”
Others, like Garaventa, Hildreth and O’Neil, agreed the closure had negative effects. Though Garaventa — who was on the Tuolumne General Board of Directors as it was phased out — said there wasn’t a choice considering county revenues.
“We don’t have the money to do everything,” he said.
Bass, a supervisor who was on the county board through the TGH closure, implored the community to give the county and Sonora Regional Medical Center, the county’s only hospital, some time to work the issue out.