Civil Forfeiture Case Could Set Federal Precedent In Northern California if not Nationally

Marguerite Arnold, Main Street

In what many in the marijuana advocacy and legal community are calling a potentially landmark legal precedent for medical marijuana dispensaries nationally, a Northern California federal judge has thrown out a civil forfeiture case against a San Francisco medical dispensary called the Shambhala Healing Center and its landlord.

Civil forfeiture, the ability of the federal government to seize property and assets including cash they claim is involved in "the drug trade," is perhaps the most widespread draconian use of federal power in everyday use in the United States today.

"While there was a positive outcome in the case of Shambhala Healing Center and its landlord against the Department of Justice in federal court, it's unclear whether this judge's specific ruling will have any impact on the remaining asset forfeiture cases in California," said Kris Hermes of Americans For Safe Access. "Federal Judge Susan Illston indeed dismissed the case, but not on the merits of federal government's forfeiture action. All parties had previously resolved the matter in a negotiated settlement whereby the property owner paid the government $150,000 in lieu of seizure of the property. Illston held that the settlement agreement prevents the government from continuing its attempt to seize the property."

Regardless of the intent of the judge, the news spread through the industry press quickly. Under laws that began to appear on the books in the 1980s and were given a supercharge under War on Terror initiatives under the Bush Administration of the early aughts, federal officials can seize property they claim is involved in the marijuana trade. And until this December, those accused, even if they were legal marijuana businesses sanctioned under state law, had no defense at trial for any reason. Supreme Court case precedent established over this period of time also found that even those who used a "medical defense" in distributing the drug were still guilty and subject to federal prosecution.

The decision to drop the case in favor of Shambhala Healing Center is the first time that a dispensary has won a victory in a case like this. It is not, however, the first time, particularly lately, that federal judges, particularly in this circuit, have found creative ways around federal drug law.

"Although this case may not have reverberating effects on pending or future federal asset forfeiture cases, the recently adopted Congressional measure banning the DOJ from using funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws will definitely have an impact," said Hermes. "Arguably, asset forfeiture cases like the ones pending in Berkeley and Oakland point directly to the federal government's effort to undermine implementation of California's medical marijuana laws. As such, the DOJ enforcement restrictions passed by Congress arguably apply specifically in instances like this and should be used by attorneys to dismiss these cases."