So it was Wednesday afternoon at Hastings, when top Bay Area federal prosecutor Joseph Russoniello showed up to debate Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access. The event, moderated by Hastings professor Rory Little (who showed little shame about tearing into his slices with the aplomb of an Arcata agriculturalist), aimed to make sense of federal pot enforcement in California, given Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments that the feds wouldn’t bust people who complied with state law.
Russoniello treated Holder’s statements with a respectful shoulder shrug: since California’s regulations mandate that medical dispensaries be nonprofits — and the feds have always prioritized commercial operations over users and legitimately sick people — the attorney general has effectively changed little. Elford latched onto Russoniello’s comment that co-ops have “little” to fear from federal law enforcement, saying he would have felt much more comfortable had the U.S. attorney said “nothing to fear.”
But overall, Russoniello more than held his own.
More on Russoniello's appearance, a bit of heckling and photos of actual people, after the jump.
Elford & Russoniello address a mellow bunch of Hastings students.
When Elford disputed Russoniello’s characterization that a 1970s era commission had concluded that marijuana was harmful and shouldn’t be legal, the U.S. attorney read aloud from testimony given by one of the commissioners saying just that. Elford never responded directly, and it took a sharp student to point out that even though the commissioner may have said he didn’t think marijuana should be legal, that didn’t drop decriminalization off the table.
And when some spectators ranted through familiar legalization arguments — that the feds won’t allow real scientific studies, that alcohol is much worse than marijuana, and that pot smokers are generally harmless teddy bears — Russoniello came off looking, well, more prepared than they did (even though he couldn’t resist that old drug warrior shibboleth, that marijuana is a gateway). The medical pot system in California is rife with abuse, Russoniello said, with dispensaries loathe to police themselves and doctors phoning in prescriptions.
“The notion that people smoking marijuana are just staying home and watching cartoons is absurd,” he pronounced.
“No, you’re absurd!” shrieked back one attendee.
— Dan Levine