A U.S. district court judge ruled Thursday that the City of Oakland had no standing to sue the federal government in defense of Harborside Health Center, the nation's largest medical marijuana dispensary, which is now facing property seizure proceedings.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James ruled that the lacked the authority to intervene in a case brought by federal prosecutors. James ruled the city's argument that the prosecution was beyond the five-year statute of limitations, and concerns about a public health crisis resulting from putting over 100,000 patients into the black market, were irrelevant at that point.
"The ruling was decided on procedural grounds," Harborside owner Steve DeAngelo told Raw Story. "I don't think that the procedural niceties should be allowed to secure the greater significance of the City of Oakland's action, which is that the city council and by extension the 400,000 citizens of Oakland, recognize that Harborside is an asset to the entire community and closing us down would not only hurt the 120,000 patients who are members at Harborside, it would hurt the entire city."
Oakland officials sued Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag last October, saying that closing the business would severely harm the city, as it collects more than $1 million in taxes from Harborside's two locations each year.
"The court unfortunately adopted the DOJ’s 'Twilight Zone' version of justice, where Oakland is supposedly prohibited from filing a separate lawsuit and is required to file a claim in the forfeiture statutory framework," attorney Cedric C. Chao, who argued on behalf of the city, explained to Raw Story. "But, as everyone acknowledges, if Oakland did file a forfeiture claim it would be thrown out because [the city] has no economic interest in the building."
"So, the government’s argument boils down to 'Oakland and its 400,000 citizens have no access to the courts and have no means to seek redress for the unique and serious harms that Oakland will face if the forfeiture action is allowed to continue,'" he added. "I seriously doubt that Congress intended that the forfeiture statute would disenfranchise a large city and 400,000 residents."
Things were looking up for Harborside in December and January after state judges ruled that the business's landlord could not evict them for activity protected under state law. Dispensary owner Steve DeAngelo told Raw Story at the time that it was a "huge victory," but it essentially meant that "California courts must enforce California law."
That is not the case for a place like the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which must enforce federal law, held by the Constitution as having supremacy over state law.
Harborside's defense essentially boils down to the same argument an attorney for the City of Oakland floated -- that the statute of limitation is five years, and federal law enforcement has known about Harborside since 2006 -- but it's unclear if that will supersede the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits use, production, transportation and sales of marijuana.
Nevertheless, Chao said he thinks Harborside's appeal has a good shot at success. "It cannot be right that Oakland and its 400,000 citizens are denied access to the courts," he said. "This is the United States, not Siberia. I believe Oakland has a very strong case on appeal. Unique factual circumstances, as here, create new law. The appellate courts are well suited to think through what the law is, what the law should be, and what the policy ramifications are for the judiciary’s ruling. I will be consulting with the Oakland City Attorney about the City’s next steps."
DeAngelo expressed confidence about his appeal as well. "We're feeling pretty good about it. The ruling in the City of Oakland case has no impact in the ongoing civil forfeiture litigation we're engaged in with the federal government. We remain open and continuing to serve patients every day. I still haven't received a trial date... they're going to have to hold a trial to convict us. I don't believe that a bay area jury is going to device that Harborside should be closed. We've always felt if we're allowed to present our case to a jury, they would recognize our benefits to the community and would decline to close us."
Nevertheless, DeAngelo's voice sounded strained when he acknowledged the ever present chance that the feds could just decide to kick in his front door and take him away at gunpoint, even without winning the forfeiture decision in their favor. "I know that [I could be arrested], I'm acutely aware of it," DeAngelo admitted. "I don't worry about it. I never know when I go to work in the morning whether I'm going home at night or going to federal prison in handcuffs, but we knew that from the day we opened. From the very first day we opened, federal agents were raiding medical cannabis targets even in Oakland, and we decided to open our doors because we believe in this medicine."
The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013, a bill introduced last week by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), could alleviate Harborside's problems by allowing individual states to decide whether marijuana or medical marijuana are appropriate, extricating the drug from Schedule I on the register of controlled substances. However, it likely does not enjoy enough support to clear the House of Representatives.
"Nothing I've seen over the last six years has changed my view that taking that risk is worthwhile," DeAngelo concluded. "Every week, almost every day... a patient or two or three tell me really heart wrenching stories about how they have been helped and how they have come to depend on Harborside for their wellness, for their health and in some cases for their lives. I can never, and never will, abandon those patients."
Photo: Wikimedia commons.
Updated with quotes from Steve DeAngelo.