Berkeley marijuana dispensary threatened by federal government

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Tara Hurley/Staff

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The federal government has filed a lawsuit to shut down Berkeley Patients Group, the city’s oldest and largest medical marijuana dispensary.

A complaint was filed on May 2 through the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Nahla Droubi, the landlord of the property that houses the dispensary. The lawsuit threatens to seize the property for allegedly violating federal law, which prohibits operating a marijuana dispensary.

Berkeley City Council members and representatives from Berkeley Patients Group held a press conference Wednesday afternoon in front of the Old City Hall expressing their opposition to the lawsuit.

“There is no legitimate reason to target Berkeley Patients Group,” said Sean Luse, chief operations officer at BPG. “They’re in compliance with state law. The U.S. attorney general … has chosen to hurt our patients by diverting attention from the real issues.”

Berkeley Patients Group also came into opposition with the federal government in February 2012, when it received letters from the U.S. attorney’s office for violating a federal law banning dispensaries from being located within 1,000 feet of a school. Even though California law dictates that the distance only has to be 600 feet, the dispensary voluntarily closed down and reopened at a new location in December a few blocks away.

According to the complaint, the U.S. attorney began sending Droubi letters again in November 2012 before the new location opened, warning that the new location would be in violation of the same federal law by being within 1,000 feet of two preschools. A second letter sent in February noted that the group could face criminal and civil penalties if operation continued.

Luse said that the federal government should focus its attention on other crime problems in the city, like illegal drug and gun trafficking. He also said that they plan to fight the lawsuit.

“We look forward to having our day in court and believe we will ultimately prevail,” Luse said.

City Councilmembers Darryl Moore, Kriss Worthington, Laurie Capitelli and Jesse Arreguin voiced their backing of Berkeley Patients Group at the press conference. Mayor Tom Bates also showed his support for the dispensary.

“I’m very, very disappointed that this has happened, and we’ll do anything we can to make sure they get back into business,” Bates said.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that the federal government was overstepping its boundaries, referencing the recent California Supreme Court ruling on City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center. In the ruling, the court recognized the legality of medical cannabis dispensaries but allowed that local governments may ban dispensaries despite state law.

“Being a U.S. attorney doesn’t give you the right to change state law or city law,” Worthington said. “It’s so absurd. It’s a waste of time, and it’s threatening patient care.”

In the meantime, the dispensary will remain open, according to Henry Wykowski, attorney for Berkeley Patients Group.

“The only people that would benefit from the closing of Berkeley Patients Group are the gangs and cartels,” Wykowski said. “This action will cause them to prey on the patients who now have a clean, safe place to get their medicine.”

The federal government filed a similar lawsuit against a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland last July. The city of Oakland filed a lawsuit in response, claiming that the federal government had overstepped its jurisdiction. A federal judge later dismissed the lawsuit, saying that only the dispensary and its landlords could contest the government’s seizure of property.

Wykowski said that they intend to file a claim in response to the lawsuit and will also present their case in court.

Contact Tara Hurley at [email protected].

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