Pubdate: Thu, 19 Feb 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

Marijuana Legalization Might Occur Long Before the Feds Give Up Their
Quest to Shut Down Two Bay Area Pot Clubs.


Sometimes you know you've lost.

Other times, you have to be dragged from the field, long after the 
lights are shut off and the crowd has gone home.

Intervention is needed right now in the East Bay, the only place in 
the United States where the federal Justice Department is trying to 
seize private property used for a legal enterprise.

Emphasis on "trying."

Since 2012, United States Attorney for Northern California Melinda 
Haag has been attempting to put a pair of pot clubs out of business: 
Berkeley Patients Group and Oakland's Harborside Health Center. 
Prosecutors in Haag's office filed asset forfeiture proceedings 
against the two city-licensed, taxpaying dispensaries in 2013 and 2012.

Note the date. It's now 2015. Both cases are still tied up in court, 
and following a Feb. 6 ruling, they could easily be tied up in court 
until 2017.

It is entirely possible that marijuana could be legal in California 
and retail cannabis stores in operation by the time the Justice 
Department is through trying to shut down the two dispensaries, which 
continue to sell cannabis to hundreds of people every day. The 
dispensaries, which are legal under state law, came under target by 
the feds, which claim the pot clubs are too big and too close to schools.

This charade could end now. The government has a chance to listen to 
the voices, and kindly say it's past time to stop and bow out.

You've heard the story before: California's cannabis industry got too 
big too fast. The state's pot clubs might have taken in over a 
billion dollars in revenue as of 2007, the state Board of 
Equalization estimates. It might sound outlandish until you consider 
this: One Hayward dispensary, the Compassionate Patients' Cooperative 
of California, recorded $26.3 million in revenue in the first six 
months of 2007.

You can only make millions under the feds' noses for so long. A big 
raid and subsequent criminal proceedings ended the CPCC's ride (the 
clubs' operators, the twentysomething Norton brothers, accepted plea 
deals and took six-month sentences in 2013), and the industry got the 
message - for a little while. Obama was elected, and the industry boomed again.

This time, the feds trimmed things back using only lawyers. The U.S. 
Justice Department threatened pot clubs with asset forfeiture 
proceedings, forcing the closure of hundreds of shops around the 
state. Only a few in the Bay Area stood fast and fought the 
government in court.

So far, the feds are 0 for 1. Late last year, the landlord of 
Shambhala Healing Center in the Mission District accepted a plea deal 
from the government. In return for $150,000, the Justice Department 
dropped its claim and gave up trying to grab a piece of the Mission.

Uncle Sam still wants a piece of San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and the 
Oakland Embarcadero. The claims against BPG and Harborside are still pending.

Both are the biggest pot clubs and biggest taxpayers in their 
respective cities. (BPG pays $1.3 million in annual state sales tax, 
on top of another $526,000 annually to the city of Berkeley; the most 
recent figures for Harborside were not immediately available).

Both clubs may owe their continued existence to their home cities. 
BPG's case is on hold pending the outcome of an appeal filed by the 
city of Berkeley, which is trying to be added to the lawsuit on BPG's 
side. On Feb. 6, a judge put the forfeiture case on hold until 
Berkeley's case is completed, which could take two years. Oakland is 
similarly trying to get involved on Harborside's side.

Even U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, whose district includes both 
dispensaries, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives 
that would ban the Justice Department from filing asset forfeiture 
lawsuits against medical marijuana dispensaries that are following 
state law. That would codify the provision put into the Cromnibus 
spending bill, which Congress passed in December, removing funding 
for Justice Department enforcement efforts against state-legal 
cannabis enterprises.

The feds have received the message that the war on medical marijuana 
is over. The U.S. Surgeon General earlier this month admitted that 
marijuana "can be helpful." Lawmakers in the reddest of red states 
are introducing bills that would give sick kids access to cannabis 
oil. Nowhere else in the country are there asset forfeitures pending 
against state-legal dispensaries, industry legal experts believe.

Even the federal judges sitting on the cases have openly questioned 
the wisdom of continuing an unpopular fight to the end.

Only in the Bay Area is the Justice Department acting like Uncle Rico 
in Napoleon Dynamite and still insisting that it's fit to play the 
game, years after the fourth quarter ended.

Exit strategies are available. There are settlement options, like the 
one pursued in San Francisco, or one put forth by a mediator.

"We've offered to take it to mediation," said Lara DeCaro, BPG's 
counsel. "But they've refused."

A message left with Haag's spokeswoman was not returned. And it 
probably never will be. The Justice Department has rarely commented 
publicly on the local war on legal weed, except to say that the 
dispensaries were targeted for closure because they were too big.

That's a condemnation of the people. Without them, there would be no 
demand for cannabis in America, which is valued at several billion 
dollars - and counting.

Haag lives in Berkeley, not far from BPG. Maybe it's personal. Maybe 
she's waiting until 2017 when Obama will be termed out.

There will be a new U.S. attorney then. One of his or her first acts 
could be to call it quits on this fight.

The score is in. The war is over. As soon as one of the players 
realizes it, we can move on.

It's their move.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom