California City’s Defense of Marijuana Dispensary Struck Down in Federal Court

A federal magistrate judge has taken the side of prosecutors in dismissing a lawsuit brought by Oakland city attorneys, who had attempted to argue that a federal agent shutdown of the country’s biggest medical marijuana dispensary was illegal. marijuana1.jpg

Our Los Angeles medical marijuana attorneys understand that the city had tried to sue on behalf and in defense of Harborside Health Center in a first-of-its-kind action that was a testimony to the symbiotic relationship the dispensary had with its community.

The magistrate judge, however, sided with prosecutors on the basis that the city lacked any standing or authority in the case. The fact that the prosecution’s action came far beyond the five-year statute of limitations in the case or that more than 100,000 medical marijuana patients in the vicinity were forced to get their medicine on the black market made no difference.

Steve DeAngelo, owner of Harborside, said the case was essentially turned on a technicality, adding that while respectful of the position the judge was in, minute procedural details shouldn’t take precedence over the well-being of an entire community.

Oakland’s defense of the dispensary, which was formally filed last October, is rare. Typically, you will not see city leaders or governments willing to go to bat for medical marijuana rights. Despite the stinging defeat, we are encouraged by the fact that it represents a shifting in cultural attitudes with regard to medical cannabis.

The city had argued that aside from the fact that the dispensary had been abiding by state and local laws, shuttering of the operation would cause major harm to the city – not only patients, but everyday operations. The firm pays in excess of $1 million in taxes annually.

So now, the door is open for federal prosecutors to proceed with a forfeiture action against Harborside.

City attorneys are extremely frustrated. They say that the court’s approach makes little sense. On one hand, the city can’t file a separate suit and must instead file a complaint within the existing federal forfeiture case. However if it did so, such a claim would be tossed, as the city doesn’t have a valid financial interest in the building itself.

As one attorney lamented, the city and its citizens essentially have no means to seek recompense for their grievances with regard to the harm inflicted by this forfeiture action.

“I seriously doubt that Congress intended that the forfeiture statute would disenfranchise a large city,” Oakland Attorney Cedric Chao was quoted as saying in The Raw Story, adding that the justice in this case seemed more akin to what one might expect in Siberia – not the U.S.

Previously, state judges had ruled that Harborside’s landlord was not allowed to evict the firm for activities that were protected under state law. But this was simply an affirmation that state courts have to enforce state law (which seems a simple enough concept, though it’s too often been lost in all of this).

Federal law is a whole different ball game.

Perhaps the strongest argument for Harborside will continue to be the statute of limitations. There is ample evidence that federal prosecutors were well aware of Harborside and its activities since at least 2006. However, we don’t know yet if that is going to be enough for the owner to fend off allegations filed under the Controlled Substances Act.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:
Judge rules against Oakland in medical marijuana lawsuit, Feb. 14, 2013, By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
Judge dismisses City of Oakland lawsuit defending nation’s largest pot shop, Feb. 15, 2013, By Stephen C. Webster, The Raw Story
More Blog Entries:
California Medical Marijuana Ban: State Supreme Court Hears the Case, Feb. 9, 2013, Los Angeles Marijuana Lawyer Blog