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Judge rejects bid to shut Oakland pot dispensary

Federal judge's ruling allows Harborside Health Center to continue operating while a fuller legal airing of issues surrounding its existence take place.

January 12, 2013|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Harborside Health Center in Oakland is believed to be the largest medical pot dispensary in the country.
Harborside Health Center in Oakland is believed to be the largest medical… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

OAKLAND — The nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary won a round in federal court this week, with a judge rejecting efforts by Harborside Health Center's landlords in Oakland and San Jose to immediately shut down operations.

The property owners have been under pressure since federal prosecutors last summer threatened to seize the buildings, arguing that pot sales were in violation of federal law. But in her ruling, Chief Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James said that "any argument about the urgency of stopping Harborside's activity rings hollow" — since the landlords had known for years that it was a medical cannabis dispensary.

Allowing Harborside to stay open while a fuller legal airing of the issues took place, James continued, would not cause the landlords irreparable harm.

In her ruling in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, James also found that the property owners had no legal standing to seek an immediate end to sales at the dispensary by contending they violated the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Harborside — which serves more than 108,000 patients — now will have the opportunity to battle the federal civil forfeiture actions in court.

"We look forward to proving our case in front of a jury, and continue to believe we will prevail," Harborside's executive director, Steve DeAngelo, said in a statement.

The city of Oakland also has sued to prevent the property forfeiture, contending that federal prosecutors had missed a five-year statute of limitations and misled city officials with promises that they would not go after dispensaries complying with state and local laws.

In her ruling, James ordered Oakland's case be coordinated with the forfeiture cases.

Monday's ruling sets the stage for what could be a precedent-setting battle over clashing federal and state marijuana laws.

Cedric Chao, an attorney for Oakland, has argued that closure of the dispensaries would deprive the city of tax revenue and force Harborside's patients into the underground market, driving up crime.

"The city of Oakland could not be more pleased" by James' ruling, Chao said. "The patients can continue to get the medicine. They won't be thrown in the streets. There won't be an immediate public health crisis. There won't be a public safety crisis."

The U.S. attorney's office repeatedly has declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Prosecutors have filed a motion to toss Oakland's suit, contending the city has no legal standing to weigh in. That issue will be heard at a hearing on Jan. 31.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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