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City of Oakland Fights Federal|Clampdown on Medical Marijuana

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Federal officials reneged on promises to let the states regulate medical marijuana shops without interference, Oakland claims in federal court.

The complaint asks to block civil forfeiture proceedings against a Northern California dispensary recently featured on the "Weed Wars" television show.

Oakland claims Harborside Medical Center complies with all state and local laws and should remain open. The federal government filed civil forfeiture proceedings in July against the dispensary's two locations in Oakland and San Jose, accusing them of selling marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. While medical marijuana is legal in California, it is still illegal under federal law.

Earlier federal crackdowns had focused on dispensaries close to schools or parks, but U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag focused on Harborside because of its size.

Defending the action against Harborside, Haag had said: "I now find the need to consider actions regarding marijuana superstores such as Harborside. The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need."

In a pair of July complaints filed against the two separate locations, Haag does not accuse the properties of selling marijuana to customers who are not medical marijuana patients, nor does she claim that they let nonpatients obtain marijuana. Rather, she quotes the Controlled Substances Act and federal forfeiture statutes that prohibit the manufacturing or sale of illegal substances.

Courthouse News had asked the prosecutor's office at the time of the filing if it had proof Harborside allowed medical marijuana to get into the hands of nonpatients.

Spokesman Jack Gillund replied: "Other than the statement we issued yesterday, we have no comment."

Oakland claims that Haag's actions contradict promises made by the federal government not to circumvent state laws concerning medical marijuana.

The Obama administration has allegedly repeatedly stated it would not go after marijuana dispensaries operating within state law. One spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle that "Obama would end U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raids on medical marijuana suppliers in states with their own laws," according to the complaint.

After being elected, Obama's attorney general appointee, Eric Holder, said: "what the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing here in law enforcement."

Holder later stated that the "policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law."

Oakland claims these promises led it to "further legitimize the medical cannabis industry by taxing its revenue and allocating this increased revenue to the general fund."

The city estimates the shops will bring in over $1.4 million in business tax revenue in 2012, noting the revenue is "sufficient to pay for a dozen additional police officers or firefighters, or even more librarians, park directors, or other essential municipal services." Oakland levies a voter-approved 5 percent gross sales tax against the shops.

Though the U.S. government allegedly knew about the existence of Harborside since 2006, and even earlier for other dispensaries, it did not take action until this year, according to the complaint.

Thus, Oakland says that the five-year statute of limitations on civil forfeiture proceedings has lapsed.

"Defendants exceeded their authority by filing civil forfeiture actions more than five years after they knew or should have known that the dispensaries were operational," the complaint states.

"Defendants' failure to comply with the applicable statute of limitations is an abuse of discretion, contrary to law, and in excess of defendants' authority," Oakland added.

Shuttering Harborside will allegedly cause the city to suffer irreparable harm in the form of the lost tax revenue, patient suffering and increased crime.

"Instead of obtaining medicine from a city-regulated dispensary located in a commercial area with ample lighting and security, medical patients, including the elderly and disabled, will have no option but to seek medical cannabis from street level drug dealers," the complaint states. "This will increase crime and divert scarce Oakland Police Department resources from addressing the violent crime, illegal guns, and other public safety crises that are causing the loss of many lives in Oakland."

Oakland added: "Well-regulated dispensaries provide affordable medical cannabis in a controlled setting, which decreases the market for illegal marijuana. Closing dispensaries will not reduce the demand for medical cannabis, but will instead create a distribution vacuum that likely will precipitate price increases, crime and street violence."

City Attorney Barbara Parker said the lawsuit "is about protecting the rights of legitimate medical patients."

"I am deeply dismayed that the federal government would seek to deny these rights and deprive thousands of seriously ill Californians of access to safe, affordable and effective medicine," Parker said in a statement

The city sued Holder and Haag for estoppel, and asked the court to declare that the civil forfeiture action falls outside the statute of limitations. The lawsuit applies to the Oakland location only.

Oakland is being represented by Cedric Chao of Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.

Chao said that "the federal government has acted beyond its authority by initiating the forfeiture action outside the statute of limitations."

"Moreover, the government has indicated for many years by its words and actions that so long as dispensaries and medical patients acted consistently with state laws, the dispensaries would be allowed to operate," Chao said in a statement. "Oakland has reasonably relied on these assurances, and the government should be prohibited from disrupting Oakland's medical cannabis program."

U.S. Attorney Haag's office did not return a call for comment.

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