Harborside Heath Center general manager: Medical marijuana advocates are like rebels in ‘Star Wars’

By Kay Steiger
Saturday, February 23, 2013 12:08 EDT
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Medical marijuana activists gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to talk about resistance to federal law. It’s clear that these activists view themselves as performing civil disobedience, risking jail time, legal fees and stigma. One activist and medical marijuana dispensary worker even compared the movement to the rebels in “Star Wars,” saying that finding legal weaknesses in the federal case is like “finding the weakness in the Death Star.”

Things are slowly changing, though, said Valerie Corral, director and co-founder of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, which was founded in 1993. She described getting interviewed recently by the New York Times style section about the etiquette of smoking marijuana.

“This is the mainstreaming of cannabis,” she told the room, prompting laughter.

Andrew DeAngelo, general manager and brother to the proprietor behind the much-beleaguered Harborside Health Center in San Jose, California, noted that his facility has been particularly targeted by the federal government in its effort to enforce forfeiture law to shut down their dispensary.

Forfeiture is a civil law that uses allegations of criminal misconduct or wrongdoing to prove breach of contract. The federal government has used this strategy to pit Harborside’s landlords against them, even though the dispensary operates within the bounds of state medical marijuana law. DeAngelo screened a three-week-old parody video the dispensary produced, in part to “blow off steam” due to the frustrations of the legal challenge.

The video tells a stripped-down version of the dispensaries legal troubles in Dr. Seuss-style verse, with a fictional ending in which President Barack Obama removes U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag from her position and is instructed to “smoke a spliff instead.” Haag has been the attorney leading the fight against Harborside and other medical marijuana dispensaries.

Now, Harborside is facing a trial, the early hearings of which will begin on March 14. In the meantime, he said, his brother is lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would resolve this tension between federal and state law.

“A political solution would be ideal, not just for Harborside, but for everybody,” DeAngelo told Raw Story in an interview after the panel. “because one never knows what’s really going to happen in federal court.”

“Forfeiture law is a little bit different from criminal law. It’s a civil case, and the government has been using this tool but they didn’t do their homework so good.”

“We feel like we can win the case on the merits,” he continued, explaining that Harborside’s legal team had researched the intricacies of forfeiture law. “It’s kinda like in “Star Wars,” when they find the weakness in the Death Star by studying the blueprints really good. That’s what our legal team did. We feel we have some precedents and some cases we’re going to cite and have a pretty comprehensive strategy that will show the jury that more harm will be caused by closing the dispensary and forfeiture in the building than by keeping it open.”

Still, regardless of the trial outcome, DeAngelo said, he expects that appeals will continue, likely even all the way to the Supreme Court.

And DeAngelo said he does all of this for their patients. “I learn every day from our patients. I meet people who shake my hand and thank me for saving their lives and the lives of their family members. These are the ones we’re fighting for,” he said.

His patients, DeAngelo said, are often like Joseph Casias, a fellow panelist who is currently fighting a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination when Walmart fired him for his medically prescribed marijuana he smoked at home after working hours to treat the symptoms caused by a painfully inoperable brain tumor and sinus cancer.

Casias, rail thin, said the marijuana helped him with nausea caused by the cancer treatments and helped him to eat. “I want to live as normal a life as possible,” he said with his nasally restrained voice. The audience gave Casias a standing ovation.

Watch the video, uploaded by HarborsideHeath to YouTube.

Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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