Medical marijuana at Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic, located near the edge of the Mission District.

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.”

Baby pot plants growing under lights at Emmalyn’s.

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.”

Marijuana food products at Emmalyn’s, each individually wrapped and sealed.

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.”

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Bryan Gibel

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bryan has a background in investigative reporting for newspapers and the radio. He is working the health beat for Mission Loc@l.

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  1. Sounds to me like Benito “Fat Joey” Russoniello needs to find himself another gainful means of employment, like stealing candy from baby carriages or pushing old ladies with canes in crosswalks.

    Will Barack Kumbaya Obama fire him? Not a chance. Cheney would have had any such insubordinate swabbing out latrines by now. But no, Kumbayobama is the President that stood up to the will of the electorate and put Olympia Snowe in charge despite the supermajority in both Houses that electorate conferred upon Democrats.

    Yes, Mr. President, it’s hard to govern — when you’re just blowing smoke and your pandering to big money campaign donors from the health industry is too blatant for you and your Senate buddies to disguise any longer. The War on Drugs is yet another mega-industry you’ll not dare challenge, just like big oil, big Pharma, big health insurers, big banks, and all the rest of your true constituents.

  2. Unbelievable! I cant believe these new suede pumps are giving me blisters. Thanks to medical marijuana, I can still wear my stilletto heels tonoght!

  3. Why do the people of California put up with this crap? Those thugs work for us, we are not at their mercy…. we need to teach Russoniello and his little Nazis a lesson or two…

  4. Yes, the people have spoken, but when has that ever made a difference? The people spoke regarding the use of English as a national language, the people spoke regarding immigration and the people spoke regarding same sex marriage…….I don’t see anyone paying any attention to the people in these instances either.

  5. How is it that people like Joe Russoniello are always saying the public should follow the law and he can’t even follow the chain of command? No chief executive should have to put up with an insolent subordinate like him, Russoniello should be fired.

  6. If that’s going to be their attitude, the persecution of medical marijuana, then the drug needs to be legalized, period.

  7. there is a reason the word Federal begins with the letter F.

    Just more Obama two speak. Maybe we need to sit down with the Prez and the Fed and have a nice glass of beer.

  8. Federal officials should desist from raiding and prosecuting state-approved medical marijuana providers. They are just as responsible for the situation that exists because of their obstinate objections to rescheduling Marijuana’s use as a medicine at the federal level.

  9. Perfectly Orwellian. Blab all over the television stupidifier that the federal government will stop prosecuting sick and dying people for smoking cannabis. Then the jack booted unAmerican traitorous scum go right ahead and continue doing whatever they like while the TV cameras are not running. This works too. For the vast majority of Americans, as long as you don’t admit something is happening on television, then it never happened. But assert on TV that the federal government won’t bust you for pot and everybody lights up thinking it’s legal now.

  10. Do we as a country want them conducting these raids? Who are they to impose their policies on us when it’s we who pay their wages and it’s they who work for us?

    Demand an end to these raids or an end to this government!

  11. I cannot believe we stand for this type of abuse from our government. The people have spoken out in support of medical cannabis and shouldn’t have to go through this type of harassment because the law enforcement agencies know that if cannabis is legalized they’ll lose a chunk of their budget because there will no longer be so many cannabis offenders to arrest and boost their statistics.

    I’m sure out of all the crime in california they could find a better use of their time then intimidating medical cannabis dispensaries. Absolutely abhorrent use of tax payer money.

    “It is better to have a government in fear of its people than to have a people in fear of their government.”

    I don’t think our government fears us in the slightest.

    “What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” -Thomas Jefferson 1787 President of the United States and drafter of the US Constitution

    Eventually people are going to get fed up enough at the corruption of our government to do exactly that, show them we still have the spirit of resistance and actually fight for our rights. But as of right now, we are letting them do these abhorrent acts against our own people because we are afraid to say anything about it.