Pubdate: Thu, 11 Oct 2012
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Matthai Kuruvila


The city of Oakland took the unusual step Wednesday of filing a suit 
in an attempt to stop the federal government from seizing and closing 
down one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.

Attorneys for Harborside Health Center said the suit against the 
federal government appears to be the first such action by a 
municipality on behalf of a marijuana dispensary.

The city states that federal attempts to seize the property, which 
began in July, contradicted promises by officials with the Obama 
administration who have said that dispensaries complying with state 
laws would not be targeted by federal agencies.

Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, has 
contended that Harborside is not complying with California's law 
because it is a large-scale operation that processes millions of 
dollars worth of business.

Oakland leaders say the city, like many other jurisdictions, built an 
entire regulatory scheme based on the federal government's promise, 
only to find dispensaries under attack.

The city says protecting a private property housing a dispensary is a 
matter of patients' rights, public safety and city revenues. "If the 
federal government is successful with shutting down these businesses 
we have licensed and are complying with regulations and taxes, we 
will shift people into the black market," said City Attorney Barbara 
Parker, who announced the filing of the suit Wednesday.

"That will endanger their lives because they may not have safe, 
affordable access to medicine," said Parker, who was appointed to the 
city attorney position earlier this year and is in the running for 
the elected position this fall. "It will also exacerbate our crime 
and public safety crisis."

Parker said the case, which is being handled pro bono by the firm 
Morrison & Foerster, was authorized by the City Council in a 
closed-session meeting last week.

Harborside and the city's three other dispensaries brought in at 
least $1.4 million in business tax revenue to Oakland last year. In 
2009, Harborside alone generated at least $21 million in sales, all 
of which were also subject to sales taxes, which are 8.75 percent in 
Alameda County.

"The federal government has made assurances that cities like Oakland, 
as long as we abided by state law, would not see these types of 
consequences," said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf. "We need to know 
whether we can rely on those types of statements."

Haag's office did not return multiple calls.

When the U.S. attorney's office announced forfeiture proceedings 
against Harborside in July, it relied on Harborside's alleged 
violation of federal drug law in asserting the government's right to 
seize the property at 1840 Embarcadero, along the Oakland Estuary.

Haag said that Harborside's size - the largest in the nation with an 
estimated 108,000 patients - made it a target.

Calling Harborside a marijuana "superstore," she said in a statement 
at the time, "the larger the operation, the greater the likelihood 
that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana laws and 
marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated 
medical need."

Oakland's suit also alleges that the federal government's seizure 
attempts came after a five-year statute of limitations on forfeitures 
had lapsed. Harborside opened in 2006.

The only way the government could claim that the statute had not 
lapsed is if they claim they didn't know in 2006 about the existence 
of Harborside, said Cedric Chao, a partner at Morrison & Foerster in 
San Francisco.

"It would be impossible for the federal government to say they were 
unaware of these dispensaries in 2006," Chao said.

The property, which federal authorities said was valued at around $2 
million, is owned by Ana Chretien, owner of ABC Security, one of the 
East Bay's most politically powerful security companies. Her company 
has had contracts with the city of Oakland, Alameda County and the 
Port of Oakland, including Oakland International Airport.

The U.S. started eviction proceedings on Harborside earlier this 
summer, said Chretien's attorney, Geoff Spellberg. He said Chretien 
would prefer to find a solution that satisfies all the parties involved.

Spellberg and Harborside's executive director, Stephen DeAngelo, said 
they were thrilled by Oakland's lawsuit.

"Compassion and common sense says that if you're going to give 
patients the right to use cannabis, you also need to provide them a 
way to legally access that medicine," he said. "The city, like us, is 
simply asking for the federal government to honor the policies 
they've already articulated."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom