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Judge rules against Oakland in medical marijuana lawsuit

Different strains of marijuana are available for patients at Harborside Health Center. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A U.S. magistrate judge on Thursday sided with federal prosecutors in dismissing a lawsuit by the city of Oakland that challenged as illegal federal attempts to shutter the nation’s largest medical marijuana dispensary.

In filing the suit last October, Oakland became the first city to take on federal enforcement actions that have led hundreds of dispensaries to close in recent years.

Attorney Cedric Chao, representing Oakland, had argued that the city has broad interests in ensuring Harborside Health Center remains open, as its closure would compel many of the dispensary’s 108,000 patients to turn to the illegal market, triggering a public health and safety crisis.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James ruled there was no appropriate legal avenue for Oakland’s intervention.

Federal attorneys had moved to dismiss the suit against U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, on grounds that any party seeking to weigh in on an asset forfeiture must do so within a specified period of time, which had elapsed.

Chao had countered that since Oakland has no direct interest in the Harborside property, the city instead sought to litigate its concerns under the  Administrative Procedure Act, which  governs the way federal agencies propose and establish regulations.

But James concluded that Oakland had not met the required  legal hurdles to sue under that act. 

The  forfeiture actions, which target Harborside’s landlords in Oakland and San Jose, are proceeding. Harborside has weighed in and will make the same argument that Oakland asserted in its suit: that federal prosecutors knew of cannabis sales at the dispensaries for years and missed the statute of limitations to seek forfeiture.

Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside, said in a statement that he was disappointed in Thursday’s ruling,  but “the message of Oakland’s lawsuit remains powerful and relevant: the City Council and mayor have determined that if Harborside Health Center is closed, the entire city will be harmed.”

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on James’ ruling.

Meanwhile Thursday, more than a dozen members of Congress co-introduced legislation pertaining to medical marijuana.  U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) wrote the "States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act," which in addition to rescheduling marijuana for medical use would allow states to establish production and distribution laws without interference by the federal government, and would also remove current obstacles to research.

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) wrote the "Truth in Trials Act," a separate bill that would overturn the prohibition on medical marijuana evidence in federal court, allowing defendants who were complying with state and local laws to introduce such evidence in their own defense.

The bills come in advance of a national medical marijuana conference organized by Americans for Safe Access to be held next week in Washington, D.C.

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--Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: Different strains of marijuana are available for patients at Harborside Health Center. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

 
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