Oakland Sues Federal Prosecutors Over Medical Marijuana Crackdown

OAKLAND, Calif. — The city of Oakland became the first known jurisdiction yesterday to sue the federal government over its attempts to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries, escalating the local-federal battle over criminalization of the drug.

Federal prosecutors have ramped up crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries in many of the 17 states where they have been legalized, after a 2011 shift in the federal government’s position that it would not prioritize prosecution of medical use of the drug.

Harborside Health Center, the country’s largest dispensary with locations in Oakland and San Jose, Calif. and more than 100 employees, has since been subject to multiple attacks, but has managed to stay open, with a case pending on a move to evict Harborside and seize its assets.

Oakland’s lawsuit alleges that the federal government exceeded its authority in its civil forfeiture action against Harborside, by missing time limits for filing suit after years of allowing the operation to proceed, and by acting contrary to earlier statements and actions that indicated it would not crack down on those dispensaries in compliance with state law. In June, Attorney General Eric Holder told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee the Department of Justice was “not going to use limited resources that we have to go after people who are acting in conformity with state law,” although official DOJ policy on this issue has fluctuated. The complaint filed against Harborside makes no mention of state law.

Talking to reporters yesterday, Harborside Executive Director Steve DeAngelo said:

Neither the president nor Attorney General Holder should wait for the various different legal actions that are connected to this situation to unravel themselves. They should immediately order a freeze not just on the actions against Harborside, but of the actions against every other state compliant medical cannabis dispensary in the country until they can be reviewed and make sure that the wrong people aren’t being targeted. Because there is a clear and marked disparity between the Attorney General’s sworn testimony to Congress when he said that only those dispensaries out of compliance with state law would be targeted, and what’s happening here on the ground, where model dispensaries like Harborside Health Center have been targeted.

Other victims of federal prosecution have included the former owners of a Montana medical marijuana dispensary, founded by the man who helped draft and secure passage of the state’s medical marijuana law, and who went into the dispensary business to provide a model for compliance with state law. He provided frequent tours of the facility to lawmakers and law enforcement officials.


Harborside has asserted some of the same arguments as Oakland in its own litigation with the Department of Justice. But Oakland’s lawsuit sends a powerful message that the city is willing to go to bat with the federal government in defense of its state-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries, which City Attorney Barbara Parker praised as providing “access to safe, affordable and effective medicine.”