In possibly the first verdict of its kind, a federal judge has allowed the world's largest medical pot club to keep selling the federally illegal drug. The stunning court victory occurred Monday when Harborside Health Center won the right to remain open while it fights federal forfeiture proceedings in the coming months. US Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James ruled in favor of the club, denying two motions for preliminary injunctions from Harborside's landlords that would have forced an end to medical cannabis sales at the dispensary's Oakland and San Jose locations.
Northern California US Attorney Melinda Haag is trying to seize the two properties leased to Harborside unless it stops selling medical cannabis at both locations. In response, Harborside's landlords asked a state judge to evict the club from the buildings. But the judge denied the motions, causing the landlords to take their case to federal court.
On Monday, Judge James denied the landlords' motions as well. The landlords, the judge wrote, lacked the authority to enforce federal drug laws, adding that "there is nothing ... indicating that Harborside's continued operation compromises the existence, value, or title of either the Oakland or San Jose Property."
The club, however, still faces a federal forfeiture trial, where its defense will boil down to the argument that the government's statute of limitations to prosecute has expired. Harborside has operated publicly with a city permit for six years, and serves about 100,000 members. Case precedent indicates that the statute of limitations for the government to prosecute is five years, Harborside's attorneys argue.
"Despite the government's efforts to shortcut the case, Harborside will now be able to fully defend itself at trial," Harborside attorney Henry Wykowski wrote in a statement, following James' ruling. "The stage is now set for a jury trial on the underlying issues of the litigation, which will probably take place in about one year."
"We are grateful that Judge James carefully considered the facts and arguments in the Harborside case, and decided to grant us our day in court," added Harborside Executive Director Stephen DeAngelo. "We have always believed that a Bay Area jury will recognize the value that Harborside brings to the community, and refuse to allow the federal government to seize the properties where we are located. We look forward to proving our case in front of a jury, and continue to believe we will prevail. In the meantime, we ask the Department of Justice to immediately freeze enforcement actions against Harborside and any other cannabis providers acting in full compliance with state law. Our nation's law enforcement officers should concentrate on real crime."
Los Angelenos Face Two Pot Initiatives
The City of Los Angeles' ongoing debate over how to regulate its budding medical cannabis dispensaries just got more complicated. A second voter initiative appears to have gathered enough signatures to earn a spot on the May ballot. City officials accepted the "Regulation of Medical Marijuana for Safe Neighborhoods and Safe Access" initiative's gross signature count on January 2. The LA city clerk will now sample 5 percent of the signatures for validity.
Put forth by attorney David Welch and a group of clubs that opened after September 14, 2007, the initiative bans all medical marijuana collectives, but immunizes clubs that register with the city and comply with certain operational standards.
There is no cap on registrations, but registration priority would go to clubs that "operated as of September 14, 2007; registered with the City; have not ceased operations for 90 days except to relocate in response to federal action; provide no ingress/egress from adjacent residential zoned lots; pass annual LAPD background checks; and after 300 days maintain a certain distance from schools, parks, and other designated places."
The ordinance also would increase the business tax on clubs to $60 for every $1,000 of gross sales.
Welch's referendum will likely do battle with "The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Control Act," which is similar but contains no new taxes and strictly limits club immunity to those with tax registrations issued by the city on or before September 14, 2007.
Put forth by Americans for Safe Access, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance (GLACA), and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770, the Control Act would cap the number of clubs at an estimated 120 or so. There are about 473 clubs operating in the city — or 1 per 8,018 LA residents — according to research from UCLA.
The LA city clerk verified the Control Act's signatures on January 2, and the initiative will be sent to the city council, which can approve it outright or it will go to the voters on May 21.
Yamileth Bolanos, head of GLACA, said Monday that she hopes the council will simply approve the Control Act in the coming weeks. "We need to get this situation under control," she said. "It's not cool to have more pot shops than Starbucks in the city. Drive down the street. There are green crosses every thirty feet."
The LA dispensary scene remains plagued by infighting, operators say, and the dueling initiatives will likely ramp up the acrimony — as the older clubs square off against the newer ones in a battle for hegemony. Bolanos said 120 clubs might not be enough for Los Angeles, but it's a start. "We need to create some order. We need to have an ordinance we can all get behind."