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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds Say City Can’t Stop Medical Pot Crackdown

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The U.S. government told a federal judge that the city of Oakland lacks standing to try and block it from seizing a medical marijuana dispensary.

Harborside Health Center, a dispensary featured on the television show "Weed Wars," faces federal forfeiture proceedings against its two locations in Oakland and San Jose, Calif. Prosecutors say that the dispensaries sold marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act in July. While medical marijuana is legal in California, it is still illegal under federal law.

Joined by the U.S. government, landlords Anna Chretien and Concourse Business Center have since asked the Northern District of California to restrain Harborside from growing, possessing and selling marijuana on their respective properties.

But Harborside CEO Steve DeAngelo says the owners lack standing to enforce the Controlled Substances Act as private parties.

Oakland threw its hat in the ring as well, asking to stay forfeiture proceedings until a judge decides whether the government should defer to the states on medical marijuana laws, as it had promised.

In a motion to dismiss Oakland's suit and a brief opposing the stay of forfeiture proceedings, the federal government says Oakland missed its window to assert a claim in the forfeiture actions. It also says the city lacks any ownership in the property and therefore any standing to participate in proceedings.

Noting that Oakland is "apparently undeterred by these clear jurisdictional barriers," the government noted that the city wants to enjoin proceedings involving both the Oakland and San Jose dispensaries.

"Plaintiff cannot circumvent the requirements that apply to forfeiture proceedings by filing this separate lawsuit, nor can plaintiff obtain a stay in proceedings in which it lacks standing to file a claim," according to the brief authored by Justice Department attorney Kathryn Wyer.

Disregarding jurisdictional barriers, Oakland's request also fails because it is "based on the premise that plaintiff could actually succeed in obtaining ultimate relief that it seeks through this lawsuit," Wyer added. "But the claims plaintiff asserts in its complaint cannot possibly prevail."

Oakland argues that the government exceeded the five-year statute of limitations because the marijuana dispensary opened over six years ago.

Wyer says that the city "fails to recognize however, that under the Controlled Substances Act ('CSA') every act of possession, distribution, or cultivation constitutes a separate offense that could independently justify forfeiture."

"Many of these illegal acts have occurred at the Oakland property during the five years before the United States issued forfeiture proceedings," she continued. "The forfeiture proceedings thus fall well within the statute of limitations."

The government similarly denies that its proceedings conflict with a "policy of nonenforcement" of the CSA against all medical marijuana dispensaries that operated within the confines of state law.

"Even assuming that the marijuana dispensary operating at the Oakland property - which is alleged to the largest on the planet, with annual gross sales revenue of $20 million - were in compliance with California law, this claim cannot succeed," Wyer wrote.

The Northern District of California and two other federal courts in California have previously rejected similar arguments, according to the brief.

"As those courts recognized, the United States has never misrepresented the fact that marijuana distribution, possession, and cultivation remain illegal under federal law," Wyer wrote. "Even if a change in enforcement had occurred, Plaintiff cannot meet its burden to establish the 'affirmative misconduct' that would be necessary before the United States could be estopped from enforcing the CSA. In addition, plaintiff cannot plausibly assert that it has detrimentally relied upon the government's prior alleged nonenforcement policy when it has received a windfall of millions of dollars in tax and sales revenue through the operation of illegal marijuana dispensaries within its borders."

Oakland claims that residents who need medical marijuana for medical purposes will suffer harm if the Oakland dispensary is closed.

Quoting the 2001 decision United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-op, however, the government said that the Supreme Court rejected "medical necessity arguments" by finding that "marijuana has no currently accepted medical use" under the CSA.

"There is a strong public interest in the enforcement of federal law, as well as in the protection of the public from doing drugs that federal regulatory authorities have not approved for medical use," Wyer wrote. "In sum, plaintiff's requested stay is wholly unjustified and should be denied."

Oakland is represented by Barbara Parker of the City Attorney's Office.

Since the forfeiture proceedings began in July, two states, Washington and Colorado, legalized marijuana by popular vote for recreational use by adults. The Washington statute went into effect earlier this week, and Colorado's is expected to take effect in January. The U.S. government has yet to interfere officially in either plan.

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