By Steven Wishnia, AlterNet
Posted on December 30, 2007, Printed on January 2,
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
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,"
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
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
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
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.
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