Chronic City: N. California's Top Federal Prosecutor -- 'Really Not A Change At All' In Medical Pot Enforcement

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Ah, "guidelines." They're a little more lax than "rules," which are a little looser than "laws." When it comes to guidelines, that's their strength -- and that's their weakness. Whereas laws and rules are "broken," guidelines can simply be "ignored."

That truism is abundantly illustrated by this week's statements from George W. Bush appointee Joseph Russoniello, federal prosecutor for the northern district of California. "I think it's unfortunate that people have for some reason picked up on this as a change in policy," Russoniello told Mission Local, "because it's really not a change at all."

When asked if federal officials will halt investigation, prosecution, and Drug Enforcement Agency raids of medical Marijuana operations in California, Russoniello replied, "The short answer is no."

An Oct. 19 memo from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden told federal prosecutors in California and the other 13 states that have legalized medical Marijuana that law enforcement should focus their efforts on major drug trafficking networks, rather than patients and providers "in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws."

Ogden's memo clarified and formalized a policy announced in March by Attorney General Eric Holder (and a promise made by President Obama on the campaign trail last year): Federal officials raiding and prosecuting state-approved medical Marijuana patients and providers is now regarded as "not a good use of resources."

Less than a week after Holder's announcement in March, more than a dozen DEA agents with drawn guns raided Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic, a cooperative located near the intersection of 12th and Howard streets, confiscated all the Marijuana, and left without filing charges or arresting anyone. According to DEA spokeswoman Casey Minor, this is the only medical Marijuana raid that has been conducted in San Francisco so far this year.

Yeah, that brings us back to "guidelines" again. The law hasn't changed, at the federal level. The rules haven't even changed. And what, exactly, are the consequences to a Bush appointee, a loyal and dedicated drug warrior, who chooses to ignore those guidelines? Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many consequences at all.

Russoniello claims that "many dispensaries" in San Francisco (which has 23 officially licensed pot shops) and around California aren't really non-profit ventures. He vows will will prosecute any distributor "fraudulently" operating as a commercial enterprise. "By that I mean people who are in it as if they were running a neighborhood candy store instead of running a commune, a collective or a group club that caters only to specific identified persons," he told Mission Local.

Does this mean federal agents are currently preparing to raid more San Francisco dispensaries? "I cannot affirm or deny the existence of ongoing criminal investigations," said Russoniello, who added, "Whether people understand that there is a very high risk of detection and prosecution if they are engaged in this business as a commercial enterprise, I don't know."

"We just provide medicine for our patients, and we try to be as compassionate as we can" said Rose, who manages Emmalyn's, the clinic raided in March. "Last time was traumatizing. I don't want to feel that again."

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