California Judge To Feds: Do Your Own Dirty Work On Marijuana

Harborside Health Center founder Steve DeAngelo

Despite initially saying that it would not target medical marijuana dispensaries in compliance with state law, the Obama Administration backed away from this view in 2011, and federal prosecutors in California are now targeting the nation’s largest dispensary. Harborside Health Center serves more than 100,000 patients and was recently praised by Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker for providing “access to safe, affordable and effective medicine.”

Last summer, federal prosecutors filed a lawsuit seeking to seize the property that houses Harborside’s two locations. In response to this action, one of Harborside’s landlords asked a state court to evict Harborside, hoping that such an eviction would get the feds to back off. In an opinion handed down last week, a California trial court rejected this attempt to evict the dispensary.

The court’s order will likely only provide small comfort to Harborside and to the dispensary’s thousands of patients, as federal prosecutors remain free to go after marijuana dispensaries in federal court. Nevertheless, the state court’s order draws a clear line against federal efforts to push California to take action against dispensaries operating entirely in compliance with state law:

The court concludes, as a matter of law, that a landlord cannot rely on Section 1161(4) to ask a California state court to find a lease terminated . . . based solely on a tenant’s use of the premises to operate a medical marijuana dispensary if state law immunizes the tenant’s conduct in operating the dispensary from criminal prosecution under state controlled-substance laws and the landlord’s only basis for alleging that the tenant is using the property “for an unlawful purpose” . . . is a violation of federal controlled-substance laws. In such circumstances, a state court could not enjoin the tenant from using the property to operate a dispensary. To impose the harsher remedy of declaring a lease terminated and authorizing the sheriff to evict a tenant would be to improperly enforce federal criminal law . . . . The court does note, however, that the U.S. Attorney filed her forfeiture complaint in federal court — the appropriate organ to enforce federal criminal law.

As ThinkProgress previously explained, the federal government does have the constitutional authority to target marijuana, but it cannot force states to contribute to these efforts if they do not want to. If last week’s order is affirmed by higher California courts, it will go a long way towards establishing that federal officials are on their own when they go after dispensaries in compliance with state law.