'Not a change' in policy 'at all,' US attorney says


Operators of medical marijuana dispensaries in California are quickly learning that, contrary to recent news headlines, federal raids of medical marijuana clubs aren't going to stop -- an assertion the US attorney for northern California is unequivocally making.

Numerous news sources reported in February that the Obama administration plans to put an end to DEA raids of medical marijuana dispensaries. But last month's memo from Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecutors in 14 medical-marijuana states, instructing them on the new policy, wasn't quite as clear-cut as an outright ban on raids.

As the Associated Press noted, the new guidelines mean that the federal government will defer to state law and won't raid medical marijuana dispensaries in the 14 states that allow them "as long as they conform to state laws."

To Joseph Russionello, the US attorney for the northern district of California, that means raids will continue wherever federal authorities believe laws surrounding medical marijuana clinics are being flouted.

“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,” the Mission Local news site in San Francisco quotes Russoniello as saying.

Asked by Mission Local if federal prosecutors would stop investigating and prosecuting dispensaries in California, Russionello said: “The short answer is no.”

It's not clear from Russionello's comments whether Holder's instructions were intended to have no effect on policy, or whether Russionello, an appointee of President George W. Bush, is himself applying a restrictive interpretation of the attorney general's memo. But it does contradict what had been reported about Holder's memo, which is that it would represent a "significant departure" from Bush-era policy.

That the raids will continue is a fact that Emmalyn’s California Cannabis Clinic, in San Francisco's Mission District, experienced first-hand. Although the dispensary says it follows California's regulations on dispensaries -- they must be not-for-profit, all customers must be club members and have a valid marijuana prescription, and pot growers must also be club members -- the cannabis dispensary was raided by federal authorities "less than a week after Holder’s announcement," Mission Local states.

The local news service reports:

“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. 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, Rose said.

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.

The Associated Press reported two weeks ago:

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in March that he wanted federal law enforcement officials to pursue those who violated federal and state law, but it has not been clear how that goal would be put into practice.

The government will still prosecute those who use medical marijuana as a cover for other illegal activity, the officials said.

The memo warns that some suspects may hide drug dealing or other crimes behind a medical marijuana business. In particular, the memo urges prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases that involve violence, illegal use of firearms, selling pot to minors, money laundering or other crimes.