Pubdate: Thu, 11 Oct 2012
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Justin Scheck


OAKLAND, Calif.-This Northern California city is fighting to protect
its biggest medical-marijuana dispensary-which generates more than a
$1 million in local tax revenue annually-from a federal crackdown on
pot shops.

Oakland sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and San Francisco U.S.
Attorney Melinda Haag on Wednesday in response to a Justice Department
civil-forfeiture complaint aiming to seize the building where the
Harborside Health Center, a medical-marijuana dispensary, rents space.
The pot shop's owner says it sells more than $20 million of marijuana

Oakland's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern
District of California, is likely the first by a municipality in
response to Justice Department moves to shut down marijuana
dispensaries in California, Colorado and elsewhere using civil-asset
forfeiture laws rather than criminal prosecutions.

The case is the latest to highlight the differences between federal
law, under which marijuana is illegal, and laws in 17 states that have
legalized the sale and use of pot for medical purposes.

Oakland's suit asks a judge to strike down "ongoing and threatened
attempts by the U.S. Department of Justice to seize real property
within the City of Oakland used to provide medical cannabis to
patients." It claims the Justice Department is reneging on earlier
statements that it wouldn't target medical-marijuana dispensaries that
comply with local and state regulations.

The city also claims the federal suit should be barred by the
five-year statute of limitations on forfeiture cases since federal
authorities knew as early as 2006 that Harborside was selling marijuana.

A spokesman for Ms. Haag declined to comment. A Justice Department
spokeswoman referred to a June 2011 departmental letter giving U.S.
attorneys guidance on medical-marijuana enforcement. "It is likely not
an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on
individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana
as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable
state law, or their caregivers," the letter said.

Since that letter went out, U.S. attorneys in California and Colorado
have issued more than 400 letters to dispensary owners and their
landlords. They mostly focus on large facilities and those near
schools, threatening some landlords with legal action and property
seizures unless they evict the dispensaries, according to the Justice

Many of the targeted dispensaries subsequently have closed, according
to the Drug Policy Alliance, a medical-marijuana advocacy group that
tracks cases.

Civil asset-forfeiture laws have long been used to seize the property
of drug dealers and other criminals, often in tandem with criminal
prosecutions. In the recent marijuana cases, many forfeiture actions
have not been linked to criminal cases

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Denver said the office
was "targeting those marijuana stores that are within 1,000 feet of a
school" out of concern for child safety.

In the case of Harborside, landlord Ana Chretien responded to a July
forfeiture suit by the San Francisco U.S. Attorney's Office by
fighting the suit in court; her lawyer said he hoped to work out a
settlement with the federal government to keep Harborside open.

Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said the city took action against
the Justice Department to preserve access to marijuana for local
patients. If Harborside closes, she said, some people would have to
buy marijuana on the black market. She said the city will also be hurt
by losing more than $1 million in tax revenue if Harborside is shut
down. The city has a special on marijuana dispensaries-5% of their
gross sales.
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