Pubdate: Fri, 12 Oct 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Author: Malia Wollan


SAN FRANCISCO - The City of Oakland has filed a lawsuit in federal 
court to prevent the Department of Justice from seizing property 
leased to the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the country.

"This lawsuit is about protecting the rights of legitimate medical 
patients," City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement on 
Wednesday, when the suit was filed. "I am deeply dismayed that the 
federal government would seek to deny these rights and deprive 
thousands of seriously ill Californians of access to safe, affordable 
and effective medicine."

The civil lawsuit, which the City Council approved, seeks to 
"restrain and declare unlawful" the forfeiture proceedings against 
the landlords of the dispensary, Harborside Health Center, stating 
that Oakland will "suffer irreparable harm if the dispensaries are shuttered."

"It is heartening to see the city stand up and support us," said 
Steve DeAngelo, Harborside's executive director. At its Oakland 
location, the nonprofit dispensary employs 100 people and serves some 
112,000 more, seeing 600 to 800 customers a day. Last year, the group 
paid $3.5 million in taxes, including $1.1 million to the city.

"Oakland is very cash strapped," said Cedric C. Chao, a lawyer for 
the city. "People can do the math. How many police officers is that? 
How many teachers?"

Oakland is the first city to file such a lawsuit amid escalated 
efforts by federal prosecutors to close the state's dispensaries. 
Since last October, the United States attorneys in California have 
sent hundreds of letters to dispensary owners, landlords and local 
officials, threatening forfeiture of assets and criminal charges.

The Department of Justice has focused its efforts on those 
dispensaries near schools, parks and playgrounds. Harborside's two 
dispensaries have no such neighbors, but in July, United States 
Attorney Melinda Haag issued a forfeiture notice on the 
7,000-square-foot Oakland property leased to Harborside since 2006 
and on a 6,000-square-foot property occupied by the group's San Jose 

In a statement, Ms. Haag called Harborside an example of a marijuana 
"superstore." She went on to say that the larger the dispensary, "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."

Though Harborside's landlords in both locations moved to evict after 
receiving notice from the United States attorney, the dispensary has 
challenged the evictions in court and both locations remain open.

Under federal law, all possession and distribution of marijuana is 
illegal. But in 1996, California became the first state to legalize 
medical marijuana. Now, 17 states and the District of Columbia have 
medical marijuana laws.

Some 500 dispensaries across California have closed in the past year 
as a result of pressure from federal prosecutors and approximately 
1,000 remain open, according to Kris Hermes, a spokesman for 
Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit medical marijuana advocacy group.

"Whether or not this lawsuit is successful," Mr. Hermes said, "it 
represents an important push back by local officials who are tired of 
being bullied by the federal government."
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