Supporters of medical marijuana dispensaries march along Broadway in… (Oakland Tribune, Aric Crabb )
OAKLAND — Hundreds of medical marijuana patients and advocates rallied here Monday in advance of an evening fundraiser by President Obama, calling on him to freeze federal crackdowns on cannabis dispensaries until he clarifies his administration's policies on operations that are following state and local laws.
The rally came two weeks after a federal forfeiture action against the Oakland-based Harborside Health Center, the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary and one that has won acclaim as a model for the industry. In April, federal agents raided several Oakland businesses operated by prominent marijuana activist Richard Lee, forcing his dispensary -- which, like Harborside, was permitted, taxed and backed by local officials -- to close.
Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder have separately said they would not interfere with dispensaries that are complying with state and local laws. But Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, has nevertheless cracked down on such operations.
Helena Welch, a former Obama supporter, attended the rally with her husband Horace. The Oakland retirees, both 59, purchase cannabis from Harborside -- he to alleviate post-surgical back pain and she for arthritis in her spine and knee.
"We're very responsible with our medicine," said Helena, who used marijuana as a youth but stopped at 23, resuming only three years ago when her body began to fail her. "It's my business, but I have the right, and Obama said he wasn't going to bother anyone.... He's trying to duck and cover."
Aaron Smith, National Cannabis Industry Assn. executive director, said the matter deserved attention in an election year. "If it's not on his radar it needs to be, because the U.S. attorneys are making a liar out of him," Smith said of Obama after a midday news conference.
Rallies in support of the Oakland action were planned in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, organizers said.
In California, hundreds of dispensaries have closed since federal prosecutors announced last fall that they would crack down on operations located less than 1,000 feet from schools or profiting in violation of state law. But the recent crackdowns have deviated from that script. In the case of Harborside, Haag said in a statement that its size increased the possibility that it was violating state law, and that the more than 100,000 patients registered as members of the collective made it likely that those with no medical needs were being served.
Harborside pays more than $1.1 million a year in business taxes to Oakland, and dispensaries in California pay between $58 million and $105 million annually to the state. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee were among those who joined local officials in condemning the forfeiture action against the dispensary's landlords.
A number of businesses in the downtown zone nicknamed Oaksterdam for its onetime concentration of cannabis-related businesses flew green flags Monday in solidarity with the rally. One sidewalk chalk message welcomed the president as a "traitor"; another simply stated: "Obummer."
Harborside Executive Director Steve DeAngelo said the dispensary has received "thousands and thousands" of messages of support from around the world since the forfeiture action earlier this month.
"This is a watershed moment for our movement," said DeAngelo, whose dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose posted $30 million in retail sales last year, laboratory test all products, and provide acupuncture and other free wellness classes. "We know that if the federal government is able to come after an organization like Harborside, no other dispensary will be safe."
The protest targeted Obama's evening appearance at the Art Deco Fox Theater, where about 2,000 people lined up under a hot sun with tickets that cost between $100 and $7,500. By midafternoon, marchers filed past, chanting, "We're patients, not criminals," and "Hey hey, ho ho, Melinda Haag has got to go."
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the demonstration or the groups' concerns about administration policy.
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.