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U.S. can proceed with plans to close Oakland pot shop, court says

Judge throws out lawsuit by Oakland that challenged as illegal the federal attempts to shutter the medical marijuana dispensary, which is the nation's largest.

February 15, 2013|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. magistrate judge on Thursday sided with federal prosecutors in dismissing a lawsuit by the city of Oakland that challenged as illegal federal attempts to shutter the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary.

In filing the suit last October, Oakland became the first city to take on federal enforcement actions that have led to the closure of hundreds of dispensaries in recent years.

Attorney Cedric Chao, representing Oakland, had argued that the city has broad interests in ensuring Harborside Health Center remains open, as its closure would compel many of the dispensary's 108,000 patients to turn to the illegal market, triggering a public health and safety crisis.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James ruled in San Francisco that there was no appropriate legal avenue for Oakland's intervention.

Federal attorneys had moved to dismiss the suit against U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, on the grounds that any party seeking to weigh in on an asset forfeiture must do so within a specified period of time, which had elapsed.

Chao had countered that since Oakland has no direct interest in the Harborside property, the city instead sought to litigate its concerns under the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the way federal agencies propose and establish regulations.

But James concluded that Oakland had not met the required legal hurdles to sue under that act. 

Oakland City Atty. Barbara Parker said officials were going to consider all of their options, including an appeal, which would require City Council approval

"We're disappointed," she said Thursday, "but we have strong convictions about the harm Oakland will suffer and is already beginning to suffer as a result of the forfeiture actions."

Those actions, which target Harborside's landlords in Oakland and San Jose, are proceeding. Harborside has weighed in and will make the same argument that Oakland asserted in its suit — that federal prosecutors knew of cannabis sales at the dispensaries for years and missed the statute of limitations to seek forfeiture.

Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside, said in a statement that he was disappointed in Thursday's ruling, but "the message of Oakland's lawsuit remains powerful and relevant: The city council and mayor have determined that if Harborside Health Center is closed, the entire city will be harmed."

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on James' ruling.

Meanwhile Thursday, more than a dozen members of Congress co-introduced legislation pertaining to medical marijuana.  U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) wrote the "States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act," which, in addition to allowing marijuana for medical use, would allow states to establish production and distribution laws without interference from the federal government, and would also remove current obstacles to research.

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), wrote the "Truth in Trials Act," a separate bill that would overturn the prohibition on medical marijuana evidence in federal court, allowing defendants who were complying with state and local laws to introduce such evidence in their own defense.

The bills come in advance of a national medical marijuana conference organized by Americans for Safe Access to be held next week in Washington, D.C.

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