Reprieve For Harborside: Judge In SF Halts Justice Department Bid To Forfeit Pot Club Property

A federal magistrate in San Francisco granted a request this week by the city of Oakland for a temporary halt to a U.S. Justice Department bid to forfeit the property occupied by the Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensary.

Magistrate Judge Maria Elena James issued a stay of forfeiture proceedings while the city of Oakland appeals a February ruling in which she dismissed a city lawsuit opposing the forfeiture.

The stay will be in effect until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on Oakland’s appeal, a process that Cedric Chao, a lawyer for Oakland, estimated could take a year.

Unless it is successfully appealed by the Justice Department, the ruling thus appears to give a reprieve of at least a year to Oakland-based Harborside, the state’s largest medical marijuana dispensary.

A trial in James’s court on the related forfeiture case would not be scheduled until Oakland’s appeal is decided.

U.S. attorney’s office spokesman Josh Eaton said he could not comment on whether the government would appeal the stay.

Chao said, “We’re pleased and very grateful the court granted the stay.”

“This preserves Oakland’s right to present the issues to the 9th Circuit regarding standing without having its case made moot by forfeiture,” Chao said.

Harborside Executive Director Steve DeAngelo said, “Judge James’ ruling allows the City of Oakland to continue its legal action to protect public health and safety from the misguided attacks of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag.”

The federal forfeiture lawsuit was filed against Harborside’s landlord by Haag one year ago.

It is part of an initiative by federal prosecutors in California to use civil forfeiture actions to shut down large dispensaries on the ground that the properties are used for illegal marijuana production and sales.

The four regional U.S. attorneys have said they are targeting dispensaries they consider to be large commercial enterprises.

Harborside says it serves more than 100,000 patients and has annual sales of more than $20 million.
California’s voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allows seriously ill patients to use marijuana with a doctor’s approval, but federal drug laws make no exception for state medical marijuana laws.

Oakland’s lawsuit, filed in October, claims the Justice Department exceeded the five-year statute of limitations for a forfeiture case because Harborside has operated in accordance with city and state laws since 2006 without federal interference.

The city also contends that closing the dispensary would force patients to go without needed medication or turn to the black market, which would put additional strain on Oakland’s police force.

In dismissing the city’s lawsuit on Feb. 14, James said Oakland had no standing to sue under a federal administrative law that allows certain challenges to agency actions, because the forfeiture lawsuit was not a final agency action.

But in this week’s ruling, James said a stay of the dismissal during the appeal was justified because Oakland had raised “novel legal questions” backed by “reasonable, good-faith arguments.”

City Attorney Barbara Parker applauded the stay, saying, “Oakland’s medical cannabis program provides medicine to thousands of legitimate patients and brings in millions of dollars in tax revenue.”

Parker said, “in the middle of Oakland’s public safety crisis, I believe it is a tragic waste for the federal government to spend its limited time and resources cracking down on health care providers operating under California law.”

Chao said Oakland filed a notice of appeal of the dismissal in February and that an analysis he conducted indicates that 9th Circuit appeals are resolved in an average time of 15 months from the filing of a notice.

That would leave an estimated one more year, according to that average, for Oakland’s appeal to be decided, he said.

James also stayed a related forfeiture lawsuit filed against the landlord of a smaller Harborside branch in San Jose.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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