City of Oakland Battles Obama Administration in Federal Court Over Medical Marijuana Dispensary

San Francisco, CA -- The Obama Administration will argue for the dismissal of a lawsuit Thursday brought by the City of Oakland in an effort to halt the forfeiture of property currently being used by Harborside Health Center, one of the most respected and popular medical marijuana dispensaries in California. Lawyers for Morrison Foerster, the law firm representing the city in this action, claim that the Obama Justice Department is acting contrary to its stated policy on medical marijuana and that the government cannot seize Harborside's property because of an expired federal statute of limitations. The Justice Department, on the other hand, argues that Oakland has no standing to intervene because it failed to file timely legal briefs in the case. The pending federal litigation stems from a forfeiture lawsuit filed in July by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag against the dispensary's landlords in order to force the closure of Harborside's two locations in Oakland and San Jose.
What: Hearing on a motion to dismiss the City of Oakland in the Harborside forfeiture case
When: Thursday, January 31st at 10am
Where: U.S. District Court, 450 Golden Gate Avenue, 15th Floor, Courtroom B, before Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James
"For good reason, the City of Oakland has inserted itself in the struggle between Harborside, a well-respected and state-law-compliant dispensary, and the Justice Department, whose only motivation is to crush legal access to medical marijuana," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access, the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group, who is representing the interests of patients in the forfeiture proceedings. "By so blatantly threatening access to medical marijuana for thousands of patients, the Obama Administration has drawn even greater attention to its misguided strategy on this issue." Harborside, which is defending its own interests in avoiding closure, is being represented by Henry Wykowski.

In an unprecedented move by a municipal government, Oakland officials filed suit against the Obama Administration in October in an effort to stop its attacks on Harborside, a significant revenue source for the financially troubled city. In its legal briefs, the City of Oakland argues the federal government "exceeded its authority" by trying to shut down Harborside, "thereby jeopardizing the public welfare of Oakland and its residents." The brief further states that closing Harborside will not only "injure patients by denying them the medical benefits of cannabis," but it will also "cause economic harm from lost tax revenue, and increased costs of police enforcement, in addition to untold costs associated with channeling thousands of patients into an unregulated [illicit] market."

Earlier this month, on January 7th, Harborside's landlords lost their legal bid to force the dispensary to stop distributing medical marijuana from both of its storefront locations. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James rejected the claim that the landlords' property values would be harmed by the sale of medical marijuana. "There is nothing in the record indicating that Harborside's continued operation compromises the existence, value or title of either the Oakland or San Jose property," wrote Judge James. "Any argument about the urgency of stopping Harborside's activities rings hollow." Harborside, which serves thousands of patients, has been operating in Oakland at its current location since 2006 and in San Jose since 2009.

Thursday's hearing also comes less than two months after a state court rejected a similar attempt by Harborside's Oakland landlord, Real Property and Improvements (RPI), to evict the longstanding dispensary. RPI alleged in this separate lawsuit filed in August that the dispensary violated its lease by conducting illegal activity, which constituted a nuisance. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo ruled on November 30th that state court could not deem Harborside or any other dispensary a "nuisance" based on a violation of federal law.

The federal forfeiture action against Harborside is one of a handful of similar lawsuits the Obama Justice Department has filed in recent months. However, since October 2011, when all four U.S. Attorneys in California announced a campaign to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries, letters were sent to hundreds of landlords threatening asset forfeiture and criminal prosecution if they continued to lease to their dispensary tenants. Although they have filed fewer than 20 such lawsuits, the specter of litigation has caused the unnecessary closure of at least 500 legally-compliant dispensaries across the state.

Further information:
Oakland complaint:
Oakland reply brief:
Justice Department's asset forfeiture complaint:

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