The theft of campaign signs in Santa Barbara during election season is nothing new. But when one is burned—especially one that calls for a citywide ban on medical marijuana dispensaries—it’s enough to rouse the ire of elected officials who have made no secret of their hatred for herb.
Less than 12 hours after the alleged act of arson took place, state assemblymember Pedro Nava and city councilmember Dale Francisco condemned the anonymous “thugs, bullies, and cowards” who torched two “Yes on T” signs planted on anti-pot advocate Mari Mender’s front lawn, and then stenciled the number “420” on the curb directly in front of her San Roque home.
Mender said her family was woken up at around 3:30 a.m. Monday morning to the sounds of her dogs barking, but soon fell back asleep when things quieted down. It was only when her husband went outside later in the morning did they discover the damage. With paperwork in hand, she spoke to the media just before marching into the police station and filing a report.
Mender, a psychiatric nurse at Cottage Hospital, has been an outspoken proponent of Measure T which, if passed in November, would ban all medical marijuana dispensaries in the city and do away with the recently-adopted ordinance that currently allows three tightly regulated, nonprofit shops.
Citing her firsthand experience of working with users, Mender has claimed in various speeches and published op-eds that dispensaries and their products promote drug use amongst children and have no place in Santa Barbara. The married mother of two teenage daughters has taken a leave of absence from her job to campaign on Measure T’s behalf, personally donating $400 thus far to the cause.
To date, the Yes on T contingent has raised $3,555 in campaign contributions while the No on T camp has raised $5,525.
Standing next to Mender and Francisco during Monday afternoon’s press conference, Nava accused Measure T detractors of the purported vandalism, pointing specifically to the spray-painted 420. “Those of you may know that 420 is part of the pot culture that talks about April 20. (It’s time to light up),” he said. “If you ask me why I believe that it is the people who want to see more marijuana in Santa Barbara who committed these crimes, this is in part the reason why.”
Nava, who has fought against what he terms the “proliferation of marijuana” in his district throughout his entire state assembly tenure, said that last night’s incident is symptomatic of the weed industry. “If you want to see more marijuana in Santa Barbara, you can expect to see additional acts of lawlessness,” he said. The assemblymember and attorney general hopeful also juxtaposed what he saw as more civilized discourse during the controversy surrounding BevMo!’s recent opening, saying no signs were set on fire then. Conversely, he said, “marijuana activists contain an element that is aggressive and that is hostile.”
Francisco agreed, stating that “[Retail marijuana stores] will attract a criminal element because that is a major part of the marijuana industry.” The councilmember has also consistently resisted the allowance of any dispensaries in town, arguing that Santa Barbara is the only tri-county city to currently permit pot shops, and that citizens are paying the price because of that. “I’ve said from the beginning what this will do,” he said. “One of the reasons I fought for Measure T is exactly because of this sort of crime.”
Mender said she’s been shaken by the episode, and is confused by what she sees as a blatant trampling of her First Amendment rights. “I’m just trying to express my own opinion in my own home,” she said. “It really saddens me that, in my efforts to protect this community and protect my family and other families, I am subject to this kind of harassment.” Mender, who is on the board of directors at Jodi House (a brain injury support center), is also the creator of a Yes on T Facebook page that currently has 99 members.
“I don’t know who would do such a thing to someone like me who is a nurse,” she went on. “I take care of other people; I have a great deal of compassion for people who are ill. But I also have a great deal of protective feelings about this community and about my family and about everybody’s children.”
Elaborating that marijuana, in her opinion, undermines parents and puts kids at risk, Mender had harsh words for the alleged vandals who she said have crossed the line when it comes to disagreement over the issue. “Decent people have conversations when they disagree,” she said, “not set fire to people’s lawns in the middle of the night. Unless they’re brain damaged.” Mender said she wants to see the responsible parties prosecuted, explaining she and her family now fear for their safety.
Ethan Kravitz, campaign manager for No on T, sought to distance his group from the sign-burning and issued the following statement Monday afternoon: “We are saddened to hear about this unfortunate incident. Vandalism and arson have no place in Santa Barbara and we send our condolences to the Menders. The No on Measure T campaign does not condone any criminal activity, which is why we support maintaining safe access to legal, non profit dispensaries instead of forcing patients to turn to the black market for medicine.”
One of the authors on the ballot argument against Measure T, Dr. Steve Hosea said in response to Nava’s and Francisco’s claims that the perpetrators represent pro-dispensary advocates as a whole, “An isolated incident by an isolated individual doesn’t prove anything. No data anywhere shows that getting rid of dispensaries would get rid of the underworld element that perpetrates crime by selling marijuana illegally.”
“I don’t think anyone would ever condone what’s been done,” Cottage Hospital’s Associate Director of Internal Medicine Education went on, “and you can’t draw any conclusions from it. Dispensaries don’t represent any criminal element. To credit this to dispensaries is a misappropriation of blame,” he summed up.
Rattled, but not intimidated, Mender said she plans to put up more signs and will continue to fight for what she believes in right. “I’m just going to do the best I can to carry on and put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “This is not going to stop me from doing the work I do. It’s important work.”
Asked after the press conference why she thought she was singled out, Mender drew a blank. “I don’t know why I was attacked,” she said. “I’m well-liked in the community and don’t have any enemies.” Francisco, who overheard, leaned in. “You do now,” he said.