The federal government will continue raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in California despite guidelines issued by the Justice Department two weeks ago indicating prosecutors should yield to state laws.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people have for some reason picked up on this as a change in policy, because it’s really not a change at all,” said Joseph Russoniello, federal prosecutor for the northern district of California, who was appointed in 2007 by then-President George W. Bush.
Asked if federal officials will halt investigation and prosecution of medical marijuana operations in the state, Russoniello said simply, “The short answer is no.”
Medical marijuana was made legal in California when voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, which permits cannabis use with a valid doctor’s recommendation.
San Francisco has 23 dispensaries, four of which are in the Mission District, according to the Department of Public Health.
A memo sent Oct. 19 by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden to federal prosecutors in California and the other 13 states where medical cannabis is legal stated that law enforcement should focus on major drug trafficking networks, rather than entities “in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws.”
The memo clarified a policy announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in March: Federal officials should desist from raiding and prosecuting state-approved medical marijuana providers.
Less than a week after Holder’s announcement, more than a dozen Drug Enforcement Agency agents raided Emmalyn’s California Cannabis Clinic, a medical marijuana cooperative located near the intersection of 12th and Howard streets on the edge of the Mission District.
“They came in with their guns drawn and pointed them right in our faces like we are criminals,” said Rose, a quiet Filipino woman with rheumatoid arthritis who manages the spotless clinic. “They twisted one of our patient’s arms and put a gun to his head. He was crying. It was so scary.”
The agents confiscated plants and medical cannabis, which were never returned, Rose said. Nobody was arrested and no charges were ever filed.
The clinic, which has 4,500 registered patients, is a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary that is licensed by the city.
It only sells marijuana grown specifically for its patients, all of whom must have a medical marijuana card issued by the state of California and a valid state ID.
Inside the doors of the clinic, meticulously guarded by a polite but stringent doorman, the clinic greets customers with Zen-like simplicity, meditative music and more than 20 strains of pot.
Prices range from $10 per gram for Space Queen to $20 for Super Grape and ChemDog.
Last year, State Attorney General Jerry Brown set guidelines mandating that city dispensaries are legally required to operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives.
That means they can only obtain cannabis from growers that are members of their co-op or collective, and their customers have to be members too.
Russoniello said many dispensaries in San Francisco and around California aren’t really not-for-profit, and he will prosecute any distributor fraudulently operating as a commercial enterprise in violation of state laws.
“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 said.
The DEA operation against Emmalyn’s in March was the only raid that has been conducted in San Francisco in 2009 to date, said DEA spokeswoman Casey McEnry.
Asked if federal agents are currently preparing to raid dispensaries suspected of illegal activities, Russoniello declined to comment.
“I cannot affirm or deny the existence of ongoing criminal investigations,” he said.
The statements made by Northern California’s top prosecutor stand in stark contrast to the guarded optimism of many medical pot activists in the city in response to the Justice Department’s recent guidelines.
“You’re going to see a change,” said Mark, who helps run Medithrive, a dispensary on Mission Street that has been open for six weeks and has about 1,100 patients. “There is going to be a new demographic of patients that were worried about the federal aspect.”
That may be true, but Russoniello said it’s a mistake to think recent Justice Department guidelines will mean no more raids.
“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,” he said.
Back at Emmalyn’s, Rose said she is diligently making sure the clinic complies with all state laws, but she’s still fearful federal agents could again show up at her door.
“We just provide medicine for our patients, and we try to be as compassionate as we can,” she said in a soft voice. “Last time was traumatizing.
I don’t want to feel that again.”