Feds End Four-Year Battle Against Oakland Medical Pot Dispensary

By Paul Gaita 05/11/16

The MMJ victory arrives on the heels of new city-wide regulations that will expand cannabis-related businesses in Oakland.

 Feds End Four-Year Battle Against Oakland Medical Pot Dispensary
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The federal government ended a four-year-long attempt to shut down what is considered the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the United States. On May 3, Oakland city officials announced that the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to drop its case against Harborside Health Center, which has served more than 200,000 members and brought in approximately $25 million in annual revenue to the city.

The cessation of the federal case, which is being viewed as a major victory for the marijuana industry, came the day before the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to establish new regulations that would significantly expand the number of cannabis-related businesses in the city, while also establishing regulation and taxation policies for the industry.

The feds began its case against Harborside in July 2012, when then-U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag filed a civil forfeiture action against the dispensary, claiming that it had violated federal drug laws. California's U.S. attorneys, in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service, had closed some 500 dispensaries across California earlier that year with threats of prosecution for violating federal and/or state laws, and had targeted Harborside as a “marijuana superstore” that, due to its size, would most likely lead to “abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws, and [put] marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need.”

Oakland successfully fended off seizure of the buildings that housed the Harborside facilities by filing suit against the federal government, claiming that the closure would cost the city millions in lost taxes and force its patients to seek out marijuana through illegal means.

A federal magistrate judge dismissed the suit in 2013, prompting an appeal from the city that sent the case to the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges there ruled against the city’s appeal in 2015, prompting many to believe that Harborside’s closure was imminent. But changing public opinion regarding marijuana use, as well as passage of legislation like the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prevents the government from using federal dollars to close down medical marijuana programs that are compliant with state laws, are what individuals like Harborside Executive Director Steve DeAngelo believe contributed to the DOJ dropping the case.

“I hope that what we’re seeing is the beginning of the dismantling of federal prohibition,” he told the Huffington Post. The U.S. Attorney’s office has not issued a comment in regard to the Harborside case, but Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who represents Oakland and lobbied for the government to drop its action against the dispensary, said, “For decades, Harborside has helped ensure members of our community can access their medicine. It’s past time for the federal government to stop standing between these patients and their medicine.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.