Oakland medical marijuana lawsuit may have statewide implications

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The city of Oakland has filed a lawsuit against U.S. authorities that claims the federal government has overstepped its jurisdiction in the attempted closure of a local medical marijuana dispensary.

The suit, filed on Oct. 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, could affect all dispensaries in California — including the three medical cannabis dispensaries in Berkeley — after a federal crackdown on cannabis dispensaries began last fall. The crackdown negates a promise by the Obama administration not to raid dispensaries in compliance with state law and guidelines.

Harborside Health Center, the largest medical marijuana dispensary in California, located at 1840 Embarcadero in Oakland, has embroiled itself in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice, which issued a memo in June 2011 stating it would enforce federal laws relating to medical cannabis regardless of state laws.

Berkeley Patients Group, the oldest and largest Berkeley dispensary, voluntarily closed last May after receiving letters from the U.S. Attorneys’ Office. The dispensary has plans to reopen, despite continued pressure from the federal government.

The Berkeley dispensary received letters earlier this year stating that it was in violation of a federal law mandating that dispensaries be located 1,000 feet away from schools and playgrounds — California’s minimum requirement is only 600 feet away.
Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said Berkeley’s situation is different from that of Oakland because Berkeley has not had any raids or forcible closures.

“We have not discussed (filing a suit), and I don’t think we would,” Arreguin said. “Unlike the situation in Oakland, the federal government has not shut down dispensaries in any raids here. Berkeley’s situation is different.”

However, Arreguin said he feels the council should support the lawsuit and file an amicus curiae — or a “friend of the court” — which would allow Berkeley to publicly show its support in the Oakland lawsuit.

“It’s unfortunate what happened in Oakland,” Arreguin said. “I hope it doesn’t happen in Berkeley, but we need to speak out about it. It’s a very tenuous time for patients and providers of medical cannabis because there’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s going to happen next.”

Though the chances of Oakland winning the lawsuit are slim, the suit could prove to be beneficial to dispensaries everywhere because the case shows the city of Oakland taking a stand, said Charlie Pappas, a member of the Berkeley’s Medical Cannabis Commission.

“It’s a real lawsuit, and most of the elected officials won’t even write a letter,” Pappas said. “A few have, but this is real action. It might not help dispensaries be more legal, but it might help them fight back more.”

Additionally, Kris Hermes, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, said Oakland’s lawsuit could relieve some pressure from Berkeley dispensaries.

“Currently, they are in fear that at any moment the federal government could threaten their landlords to evict them, as the Justice Department has done in literally hundreds of locations around the state,” Hermes said.

Though Berkeley Patients Group was the only dispensary to close in Berkeley, they did so voluntarily — unlike many dispensaries across the state that have been forcibly shut down or raided.

“It’s a practical fight as well as a symbolic fight,” Hermes said.

Contact Ally Rondoni at [email protected].