Top prosecutor, advocacy attorney debate medical marijuana

Josh Richman, Oakland Tribune

SAN FRANCISCO — Sparks flew Wednesday as Northern California's top federal prosecutor squared off in a debate against a national medical marijuana advocacy group's attorney.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello and Joe Elford, chief counsel of Berkeley-based Americans for Safe Access, agreed on little, often challenging each other on the history of the federal marijuana ban and pressing each other for details of how best to reconcile that ban with California's law allowing medical use of the drug.

"We are not interested in users. "... We're not even interested in people who have a legitimate claim to being compassionate providers," Russoniello said during the hourlong forum at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. "But we differentiate between those people who are claiming such conduct and those who are cultivating, who are distributing, who are trafficking marijuana for profit."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said in recent weeks that federal agents will no longer raid medical marijuana distributors who are in compliance with state laws, and Russoniello agreed "there is little likelihood that federal enforcement efforts will be focused on them." But "if you're in the business of selling marijuana for profit, you're in harm's way."

Elford retorted "a 'little likelihood' gets us somewhere, but it doesn't get us to where we need to be," especially in an atmosphere in which a federal prosecutor's judgment of whether a marijuana cooperative violates state law will land that cooperative's officials in federal court — where state law doesn't apply.

Elford said in many California locales, local law enforcement agencies that disagree with the voters' will in enacting Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, often call in federal authorities to bust cooperatives that are abiding by state law. In some cases, these raids result in seizure of marijuana and other property, with no arrests ever made or charges filed.

Russoniello acknowledged, "Local law enforcement may have its prejudices."

"It may even have a cynical view of Proposition 215, and I share that cynical view — I make no bones about it," the prosecutor said, making clear his opinion that the medical marijuana debate is nothing more than a stalking horse for decriminalizing recreational use of the drug.

Russoniello criticized the often slapdash manner in which people obtain doctors' recommendations to use marijuana as medicine; Elford replied the federal government — by ignoring past research and stonewalling new studies that could lead to loosening the federal ban — ensures marijuana can't be obtained through the traditional prescription process.