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Oakland sues U.S. to stop medical marijuana property seizures

Marijuana plants at Harborside Health Center

The city of Oakland filed suit Wednesday against top federal prosecutors in an attempt to stop them from seizing property leased by the nation’s largest medical marijuana dispensary.

The unprecedented civil complaint, filed in federal court against Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, seeks to “restrain and declare unlawful” a July federal forfeiture action against Harborside Health Center’s landlords in Oakland and San Jose.

The suit comes as federal prosecutors have ramped up efforts to shutter dispensaries statewide, targeting those close to schools as well as operations such as Harborside, which are in compliance with local and state laws but that prosecutors have deemed "superstores."

Launched in 2006, Harborside now counts 108,000 patients in its collective and paid $3.5 million in taxes last year, $1.1 million of that to Oakland. Co-founder Steve DeAngelo worked closely with Oakland officials as they crafted one of the nation's strictest regulatory schemes to monitor and tax the industry.

The lawsuit refers to Harborside as "vital to the safe and affordable distribution of medical cannabis to patients" suffering from pain, illness and injury.

San Francisco attorney Cedric Chao, who is representing Oakland, said in a statement Wednesday that the federal government "acted beyond its authority" by filing the forfeiture action outside the statute of limitations. He added that the government has indicated for many years "by its words and actions that so long as dispensaries and medical patients acted consistently with state law, the dispensaries would be allowed to operate. Oakland has reasonably relied on these assurances."

In an interview, Oakland City Atty. Barbara J. Parker said the lawsuit "is about protecting the rights of legitimate patients who need this medicine” and “doing everything we can to assure that this pipeline is not shut off."

If federal prosecutors succeed in shuttering Harborside, she said, “public safety could be worsened because those patients would be out in the black market purchasing this medicine from criminals.”

A representative for the U.S. attorney’s office did not return a late afternoon call for comment Wednesday.

Advocates for medical marijuana said they know of no other instance in which a city has sued federal prosecutors in an attempt to protect a dispensary.

"I would definitely welcome them to the fight," said Don Duncan, California director for Americans for Safe Access. “The symbolism of this is very important.”

Harborside's Oakland dispensary is the largest in the nation, and the center also operates a smaller sister dispensary in San Jose. Landlords facing the forfeiture action have moved in state court to evict, while Harborside has countered that it is meeting all lease requirements. Court rulings are expected soon.

Meanwhile, a federal court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1 on a motion by the San Jose property owner "to enjoin us from selling cannabis," Harborside's DeAngelo said. He called Oakland’s lawsuit "the first time that any official governmental body has formally challenged the federal government’s attacks on medical cannabis laws."

"I think the city realizes that Melinda Haag is not only attacking Harborside but attacking the entire system of regulated medical cannabis sales that the city painstakingly developed," he said.

RELATED:

California medical marijuana operation targeted by feds

Raid of Oakland medical marijuana college draws protesters

Oakland protests U.S. attorney's crackdown on large medical marijuana dispensary

-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: Harborside Health Center in Oakland sells several different types of marijuana for patients. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

 
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