The Obama administration will be going toe-to-toe in federal court Dec. 20 at 10 AM with the City of Oakland and California's largest medical marijuana dispensary, Harborside Health Center. US Attorney Melinda Haag filed forfeiture proceedings in July against Harborside's landlords to force the dispensary to close its two locations in Oakland and San Jose. Then, in October, the City of Oakland filed its own legal action against Haag and her boss, US Attorney General Eric Holder. Harborside serves thousands of patients, pays local, state and federal taxes, and has been legally operating in Oakland since 2006.
During this week's hearing at San Francisco's federal courthouse, Chief Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James will address two motions for preliminary injunction filed by both of Harborside's landlords in an effort to evict the dispensary and avoid seizure of their property by the federal government. The hearing will also address the related case filed by the City of Oakland, which the city says should be heard before the Justice Department is allowed to proceed with its forfeiture action against Harborside.
"The federal government has picked the wrong fight here," said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group. "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." ASA is representing a group of patients and their particular interests in this forfeiture proceeding. Harborside, which is defending its own interests in avoiding closure, is being represented by Henry Wykowski.
The hearing comes less than a month after a state court rejected a similar attempt by one of Harborside's landlords, 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. However, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo ruled on November 30 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 Justice Department has filed in recent months. Since October 2011, when all four US 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. (ASA, Dec. 19)