Drug Warrior's Shadow Looms Over California's Pot Clubs
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The man tapped by President Bush to be the top federal prosecutor for the San Francisco Bay Area was a hardline drug warrior during his tenure in the same post in the 1980s -- which could signal an escalation of the administration's crackdown on California's flourishing medical-marijuana clubs.
Bush named Joseph Russoniello, 66, on Nov. 15 to be U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, which covers the state's coastal regions from Monterey to the Oregon line. If confirmed by the Senate, he would fill the position formerly held by Kevin Ryan, one of the eight federal prosecutors fired last December.
The Senate is expected to take up his nomination next month. No formal opposition has developed, but Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) -- who butted heads with Russoniello in the late '80s while investigating allegations about the Nicaraguan Contras' cocaine trafficking in California -- is "looking into this nomination very closely," according to a Senate aide.
The appointment has many in California's medical-marijuana community wondering if Russoniello would intensify the crackdown on the state's cannabis clinics. As federal prosecutor for the Northern District from 1982 to 1990, he was a cofounder of the CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) program, an annual series of paramilitary federal-state raids on pot farmers and their neighbors. He also accompanied Nancy Reagan to the Oakland elementary school where she first intoned her anti-drug mantra, "Just say no," in 1984.
Russoniello fitted in well with the Reagan administration's crime policies, which switched enforcement priorities from white-collar crime to drug offenses. (In fact, Rudolph Giuliani, then the third-ranking Justice Department official, interviewed him for the job.) The Reagan "war on drugs" whacked marijuana farmers and small-time black crack dealers with five-year mandatory minimums and intensified forfeiture laws so that someone caught copping $50 worth of dope could have their car confiscated. In a 1994 interview with Smoke and Mirrors author Dan Baum, Russoniello recalled that he was happy that the department was going to get tough on drug users as well as on dealers; that he believed drug treatment was a government-sponsored crutch, that methadone maintenance merely prolonged addicts' dependence; and that the widespread pot farming in Northern California was like "an open wound on our prayer hand."
"We don't need another pot warrior trying to run roughshod over California's medical-marijuana law," California NORML head Dale Gieringer wrote to supporters, calling the nomination "an ominous development." The Bay Area is home to 36 of the state's more than 200 remedial-reefer dispensaries, including four licensed by the city of Oakland, and the Northern District also covers Mendocino County, which lets medical growers cultivate up to 25 plants per patient, and Humboldt County, which is to pot farming what Nashville is to country music.
Despite Proposition 215, the state's 1996 law legalizing the cultivation and distribution of medical cannabis, it remains inescapably illegal under federal law. The Supreme Court has twice, in 2001 and 2005, rejected Californians' attempts to win exceptions that would allow a legal supply.
On December 13, after six years of litigation stemming from the 2001 case, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court's injunction barring three pot clinics -- including one licensed by Oakland -- from growing or distributing marijuana. In an unpublished opinion posted on the Internet by several legal sites, the Ninth Circuit held that it could not invalidate the federal prohibition of medical marijuana, because the ban had a rational basis and did not violate fundamental constitutional rights.
Meanwhile, DEA raids on California medical growers and dispensaries have increased dramatically this year. According to California medical-pot advocates, there have been at least 53 so far this year, up from 19 in 2005 and 20 in 2006. On Jan. 17, the DEA raided 11 ganja clinics in the Los Angeles area, including five in West Hollywood, without making any arrests. On July 16, it seized eight people at Nature's Medicinal outside Bakersfield, and the next day it popped clinic operators in Riverside County and San Luis Obispo. In September, a raid on the Oakland headquarters of Tainted, Inc. resulted in four arrests; the defendants were accused of manufacturing cannabis chocolate bars, packaging them in logo-parody wrappers like "Mr. Greenbud" and "420 Grand," and selling them to medical-pot clinics. In October, two brothers were indicted for running the Compassionate Collective of Alameda County in Hayward, which the Northern District prosecutor's press office referred to as "a large-scale marijuana distribution center."
Early this month, the DEA sent letters to the landlords of San Francisco pot clinics, warning them that they faced prosecution and forfeiture if they continued to permit drug sales on their property. It had sent similar letters to landlords in Los Angeles and Sacramento last summer. On Dec. 7, House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) issued a statement that he was "deeply concerned" about the threats, but the committee has no definite plans to hold hearings on the issue, according to a House aide.
"Their aim is to shut down medical marijuana in California," says Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a medical-pot advocacy group based in Oakland. "The strategy is to undermine the state's medical-marijuana law."
Not all of the raids have resulted in indictments, however, and so far, the letters to landlords remain just threats. "I don't think pot is the major priority of the Department of Justice," Dale Gieringer speculates. Though he says that Russoniello "has always been our arch-enemy," he suspects that the DEA may be more zealous about eradicating medical marijuana than the Northern District's prosecutors are, citing comments Russoniello made to a local TV station earlier this year.
Hermes disagrees. For the DEA to make credible threats, he says, "there has to be a coordinated effort," and the indictments in the Tainted case are "a pretty strong indication that the strategy is coming from the top."
The U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco did not respond to phone calls or e-mails, but of the 60 cases it considered worthy of a press release in the last three months, three involved marijuana, with the Hayward bust specifically medical. That was more than the number of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine cases cited, but considerably less than the number of child-porn arrests, indictments, and convictions the office touted.
According to California NORML, federal prosecutors have been harshest on medical marijuana in the Eastern District-covering Sacramento, Bakersfield, and the rural northeast and Sierra Nevada areas -- where they often pick cases up from local law-enforcement officials, many of whom never accepted Proposition 215 as a legitimate state law. In federal pot prosecutions, defendants are not allowed to mention even the concept of medical marijuana.
Tough on pot growers, easy on Contra's coke
There was one case, however, in Joseph Russoniello's first tenure as a federal prosecutor where he was unusually lenient to drug dealers. In the "Frogman" cocaine-smuggling case-the touchstone of the late Gary Webb's investigative book, Dark Alliance , involving a network of Nicaraguan dealers who were donating profits to the Contras, the Reagan-backed terrorists who were trying to overthrow the country's leftist government -- his office returned $36,000 that had been seized from one of the defendants as "drug money."
In early 1983, Russoniello trumpeted the bust of 430 pounds of cocaine from a Colombian ship anchored at the San Francisco docks. When Julio Zavala, a mid-level dealer involved in the scheme, was arrested, police confiscated the $36,000 from his bedroom. Yet after two Contra officials sent letters saying that the cash was actually intended to aid them, Russoniello's office had the money given back.
Russoniello never followed the "Frogman" case up the ladder. He refused to prosecute Norwin Meneses, the top Contra-affiliated dealer in the Bay Area, even after Meneses' nephew informed on his uncle and two FBI agents urged the prosecutor to take the case.
Russoniello repeatedly insisted that there was no evidence the Contras were connected to the Meneses drug ring. He told Webb that he had returned Zavala's money because it would have cost too much to send someone to Costa Rica to question the Contra officials. But in 1998, CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz told Congress that the agency's investigation had found a cable which "indicated the money was returned to Zavala at CIA's request." In Dark Alliance , Webb noted that a 1997 report by the Justice Department's inspector general concluded that the CIA had suggested that it would be bad publicity if a trial on the issue revealed the dealer's ties to the Contras, with cables describing the prosecutor as "most deferential to our interests."
According to the Justice Department report, the San Francisco federal prosecutor's office told the FBI in 1987 that it had decided not to go after Meneses -- who had returned to Central America in 1985 and ostensibly become a DEA informant -- because it didn't want to jeopardize the Los Angeles office's prosecution of Danilo Blandon, the prime Contra-affiliated cocaine dealer in Southern California. The letter the office sent said the decision had been made by Russoniello, the two FBI agents, and the assistant prosecutor on the case, and that the prosecutor handling the case against Blandon had told them Meneses had agreed to cooperate. But the Justice Department report said the L.A. federal prosecutor had "no recollection of the cooperation agreement to which this referred, or of meeting with anyone from San Francisco concerning the Blandon case," and its investigators "did not find any written agreement in U.S. Attorney's Office or FBI files."
Blandon was not charged until 1992. He became a DEA informant and set up his former top customer, L.A. crack magnate "Freeway Ricky" Ross, who got life without parole. Meneses was indicted in 1989. He was never arrested by U.S. law enforcement, but was nabbed with 725 kilos of cocaine in Nicaragua in 1991 and sentenced to 12 years.
"We had a terrible, terrible time getting information about Meneses from the fellow who was the U.S. attorney out there at the time, Russoniello, who was as rabid a right-wing true believer as ever came down the road and who was bound and determined to prevent anyone from learning anything about that case," Kerry Committee lawyer Jack Blum told Webb. "He and the Justice Department flipped out to prevent us from getting access to people, records, finding anything out about it. It was one of the most frustrating exercises I can ever recall."
Steven Wishnia is the author of "Exit 25 Utopia," "The Cannabis Companion" and "Invincible Coney Island." He lives in New York.