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Battle over nation's largest pot dispensary heads to U.S. court

The outcome involving the Harborside Health Center sites in Oakland and San Jose could signal what lies ahead as more states approve legalization.

December 19, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Harborside Health Center is the nation's largest marijuana dispensary. It also is the focus of a legal battle as the city of Oakland tries to prevent the federal government from closing the center.
Harborside Health Center is the nation's largest marijuana dispensary.… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — A showdown over the fate of the country's largest medical marijuana dispensary heads to federal court here Thursday, and the outcome could hint at what lies ahead as a growing number of states opt for legalization.

This fall, Oakland became the first municipality to sue federal prosecutors in an attempt to block them from shuttering a medical cannabis facility. Harborside Health Center, with facilities in Oakland and San Jose, has more than 108,000 members in its patient collective.

The first hearing in the high-profile case comes a month after Colorado and Washington voters legalized the use and sale of small amounts of recreational marijuana — prompting President Obama to raise the possibility of relaxing enforcement of some federal anti-pot laws.

"So what we're going to need to have is a conversation about, 'How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that it's legal?" the president recently told ABC News.

Medical cannabis advocates said they hope that Chief Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James keeps those developments in mind as she decides whether to order an immediate stop to all Harborside sales.

"Clearly if people think that marijuana should be legalized completely in at least two states, then from our vantage point it should at least be legal for patients who need it for medical use," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, which has weighed in on behalf of six Harborside patients.

Harborside is viewed as an industry model for its laboratory testing of products and efforts to obtain strains laden with cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component known to help with inflammation, seizures and other debilitating conditions.

The dispensary, which saw $22 million in sales last year — and paid $3.5 million in taxes — is also "alleged to be the largest on the planet," according to federal prosecutors who consider it a "superstore." In July, they filed a civil forfeiture action against Harborside's two landlords.

Among the matters James will consider: motions by both property owners to compel Harborside to stop sales immediately, and a request by the city of Oakland to put those issues on hold while its lawsuit moves forward.

That suit, filed against Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, contends that federal prosecutors missed a five-year statute of limitations to seize Harborside's properties and misled Oakland officials with a "pattern of false promises" that they would not go after dispensaries that were complying with state and local laws.

Thousands of patients will be driven into the illegal cannabis market — endangering themselves and driving up crime — if sales are halted, pro bono attorneys representing Oakland said. Included in their filings are a dozen exhibits on federally funded research and patents obtained by the U.S. government that point to medicinal value.

Federal prosecutors want James to boot Oakland from the case, contending that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling already bars a "medical necessity" defense in federal court and that they have always reserved the right to take action against any dispensary.

"There is a strong public interest in the enforcement of federal law, as well as in the protection of the public from drugs that federal regulatory authorities have not approved for medical use," they wrote in legal filings.

Attorneys for Harborside are pressing to keep the dispensary's two locations open as they prepare to fight the forfeiture action before a jury.

As for the property owners, they are "between a rock and a hard place," said attorney Geoffrey Spellberg, who represents Ana Chretien.

Chretien was hit with the forfeiture action six years after she leased her Oakland property "in good faith" to Harborside, which was "in complete compliance with state and local regulations," Spellberg said. "The federal government has now threatened us with this forfeiture.… We would like to come to a global resolution that addresses everyone's concerns."

lee.romney@latimes.com

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