Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against Berkeley marijuana dispensary

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A judge dismissed a forfeiture action against Berkeley Patients Group on Tuesday, ending a three-year legal challenge by the federal government to shut down the city’s oldest marijuana dispensary.

In May 2013, then-U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag filed a lawsuit against Nahla Droubi, the landlord of the property where the dispensary operates, threatening to confiscate the land because it is within 1,000 feet of two preschools a violation of federal law but not California law.

According to UC Berkeley law professor Robert Berring, Jr., the lawsuit came as part of a series of tactics by the federal government to hinder marijuana dispensaries’ operation.

“The strange thing was that they chose to go after Berkeley Patients Group, a dispensary which really has been really aboveboard and tried to follow Berkeley’s rules,” Berring said.

After the lawsuit was filed, Berkeley Patients Group and the city — which collects the dispensary’s tax revenues and regulates medical marijuana in Berkeley joined the litigation process, according to Drug Policy Alliance senior staff attorney Lindsay LaSalle, who represented the city in the case.

Despite the ongoing lawsuit, a district judge ruled in February 2015 that Berkeley Patients Group could continue its operations while the case progressed.

In early October of this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and claimants of the case began to discuss a dismissal with prejudicemeaning the dispensary cannot be prosecuted again for the same claims — according to Henry Wykowski, counsel for Berkeley Patients Group.

But on Oct. 21, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a dismissal without prejudice to the court and without prior warning to the dispensary, Wykowski said. Berkeley Patients Group filed an objection, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed this week to a dismissal with prejudice so long as the dispensary does not sue the U.S. Department of Justice for initiating the lawsuit.

The case against Berkeley Patients Group is the last of four federal lawsuits against Bay Area dispensaries resolved in the past two years.

A federal appeals court in August upheld a current budget amendment stating that federal funds may not be used to prosecute marijuana dispensaries that comply with state laws. The distribution and production of marijuana — even for medicinal purposes — is still prohibited under federal law.

Because it is a federal crime, should the federal budget amendment not be renewed in the future, Berkeley Patients Group could have been sued again unless a dismissal with prejudice was granted, Wykowski said.

“I would say that this deal is a signal that things are going to get better,” Berring said. “We’re going to vote next Tuesday, and (the) state of California may well legalize marijuana. … It seems to be a bipartisan recognition that the law just makes no sense right now.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California declined to comment on the case.

Contact Charlene Jin at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @CharleneJin0327.