by David Downs
The largest medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland will stay open and fight federal forfeiture claims against its leased property, said operator Stephen DeAngelo, during a Thursday morning press conference at Oakland City Hall.
Yesterday, the 100,000-patient dispensary alerted its customers and the media that the federal government had filed forfeiture claims against Harborside's building at 1840 Embarcadero and their location in San Jose. The federal government can seize property under current drug laws if the property is used in the distribution of a drug — in this case, federally illegal cannabis.
Before a crowd of about fifty journalists and activists, DeAngelo made clear that the patients most in need of medical marijuana are the ones who suffer the most when dispensaries close, and Harborside is not closing.
"Harborside has nothing to hide, we have nothing to be ashamed of and we have no intention of closing our doors. We shall continue to provide our patients with medicine. We will contest the Justice Department openly, in public, and through all means at our disposal. We look forward to our day in court," DeAngelo said. "We will never abandon our patients."
Harborside attorney Henry Wykowski could not set a timeline for forfeiture proceedings against the buildings. Patients can continue to access marijuana at the dispensary, as well as Oakland's two other permitted and open dispensaries, not to mention the half-dozen delivery dispensaries serving the area.
Still, Harborside's potential loss would cost Oakland about one million dollars per year in tax revenue, about 150 jobs, and it would be a huge blow to the medical marijuana movement in California, which decriminalized the drug in 1996.
In October U.S. Attorneys in California declared a broad crackdown on marijuana businesses. U.S. Attorney for the Northern District Melinda Haag said she would focus her scarce resources on closing down clubs close to schools or parks.
The forfeiture case against Harborside marks a departure for Haag, who said in a statement Tuesday that she wants to close Harborside not due to promixity, but due to its size.
"The larger the operations, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana laws," she wrote.
Haag offered no evidence Harborside was breaking state laws.
At the press conference, Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker
testified to Harborside's compliance with state and local law. Parker — a former assistant U.S. Attorney — called the crackdown a "tragic waste of the federal government's time."
"I ask the federal government to focus its scarce resources on the real crisis in Oakland violent crime and illegal guns."
Rep. Barbara Lee said in a statement Monday that closing Harborisde would be "nothing short of a tragedy."
California State Board of Equalization member Betty Yee said lawful dispensaries under attack in California contribute $100 million in sales taxes each year, and the federal crackdown on law-abiding businesses undermines public safety.
"It's time for federal government at the highest levels to put a stop to harassing legitimate business such as Harborside Health Center," she wrote.
Several patients also spoke at the press conference including senior activist Sue Taylor, who said closing Harborside "would be an insult to Oakland seniors and our veterans."
Harborside member Jason David, who has a son on medical cannabis for deadly, rare Dravet Syndrome brought the crowd to tears, saying his son may die without the dispensary. "This is a real medical marijuana facility," he said. "Obama — if you are hearing this, please help us. Don't let us suffer. Don't let the kids suffer."
The United States Attorney’s Office has received media inquiries regarding civil forfeiture actions filed in the Northern District of California this week. This afternoon, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag issued the following statement in response to those inquiries:
“On Monday, July 9, this office filed civil forfeiture actions against 1840 Embarcadero, Oakland, California, and 2106 Ringwood Avenue, San Jose, where Harborside, a marijuana dispensary claiming over 108,000 customers, operates. This office has used its limited resources to address those marijuana dispensaries that operate close to schools, parks and playgrounds. As I have said in the past, this is a non-exclusive list of factors relevant to whether we should commence civil forfeiture actions against marijuana properties, and circumstances may require us to address other situations. I now find the need to consider actions regarding marijuana superstores such as Harborside. The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need. The filing of the civil forfeiture complaints against the two Harborside properties is part of our measured effort to address the proliferation of illegal marijuana businesses in the Northern District of California.”
Update — Here's Parker's full statement on federal raids against city-permitted dispensaries:
Fifteen years ago, Californians voted to decriminalize medical cannabis in our state. Oakland’s regulations and permitting requirements make it possible for patients to access safe, affordable medical cannabis to alleviate their pain and suffering.
I am deeply dismayed that the federal government would seek to deprive Californians of this vital medicine. These actions will force patients into the underground market of street corners and back alleys, undermining public safety and endangering their health and lives.
As Oakland’s City Attorney and a former Assistant US Attorney, I strongly oppose federal actions against members of Oakland's business community who are complying with California and Oakland laws and regulations and paying their fair share of taxes.
I call on the US Attorney to allow California and municipalities like Oakland to continue to protect the health and welfare of patients who qualify for medical cannabis under Proposition 215. I ask that the federal government focus its scarce resources on the real crisis in Oakland — violent crime and illegal guns that are snuffing out the lives of so many. In the midst of this crisis, it is tragic waste for the federal government to spend its time and money cracking down on legitimate health care providers.