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Oakland sues U.S. to protect nation's largest medical pot store

October 11, 2012 |  7:32 am

Harborside Health Center in Oakland sells several different types of marijuana for patients.

In an unprecedented civil complaint, the city of Oakland is suing federal prosecutors to stop them from seizing property leased by the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary.

The complaint seeks to "restrain and declare unlawful" a July federal forfeiture action against Harborside Health Center's landlords in Oakland and San Jose.

It 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 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 filed Wednesday in federal court against Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District, 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 the federal government "acted beyond its authority" by filing the forfeiture action outside the statute of limitations.

He added 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."

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.

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 it is meeting all lease requirements. Court rulings are expected soon.


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-- 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