By Phillip Smith
In a stunning victory for California's marijuana industry, federal prosecutors have agreed to end their years-long effort to close and seize Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the nation's largest dispensary with more than 200,000 patients.
Harborside broke the news with a press release Tuesday, followed up by a press conference attended by Oakland officials who have stood by the dispensary since then-US Attorney Melinda Haag went after in 2012.
The effort to shut down Harborside was part of a broader offensive against the state's medical marijuana industry. Prosecutions and threats of prosecutions forced more than 500 dispensaries to shut down, but Harborside stood firm, didn't fold, and fought hard against the federal moves to seize its properties.
"When US Attorney Melinda Haag first filed suit to seize the property Harborside is located in, I vowed we would never abandon our patients ... and predicted Harborside would outlast the efforts to close us down," Harborside Executive Director Steve DeAngelo said in the statement. "Today, thanks to the deep support of our community and our elected officials, and the skill and determination of our legal counsel, that prediction has come true."
"It's a great day for Oakland and for all of California," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at the press conference. "The federal government isn't going to waste tax dollars trying to frustrate the desires of Californians to have safe access to medical cannabis."
Harborside also stood firm because it had the money to do so. The dispensary, which also operates a facility in San Jose, brings in about $25 million a year from medical marijuana sales and was able to hire the finest legal talent in attorney Henry Wykowski.
"We are gratified that the government has finally seen fit to lay down its arms against Harborside in this case," Wykowski said. "The will of the people is for medical cannabis dispensaries to operate free from federal threats of closure. We hope we are on the cusp of a policy change and that the Department of Justice will no longer target state-legal dispensaries for forfeiture."
But Harborside's success also made it an appealing target for US Attorney Haag. In July 2012, she filed a civil forfeiture action against Harborside, claiming it violated federal drug laws.
"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," Haag wrote.
Still, Harborside counted on local support, and got it in spades. In October 2012, the city of Oakland sued the federal government in a bid to block the Justice Department from seizing the dispensary's properties. The city argued that shutting down Harborside would harm its patients and force them into the black market to get their medicine.
Between then and now, Harborside won a series of legal victories that allowed it to stay open and avoid eviction, but the city's lawsuit was ultimately rejected by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals last August. In the meantime, though, developments at the federal level worked in Harborside's favor. In 2014, Congress approved an amendment by California Congressmen Sam Farr (D) and Dana Rohrabacher (R) that blocks the Justice Department from using federal funds to go after medical marijuana programs in states where it is legal. That amendment was reauthorized last year.
The US Attorney's Office for Northern California has not commented on the decision to drop the case, but the different federal landscape most likely played a key role.
Oakland politicians praised the move.
"Today's decision by the U.S. attorney is a victory for health care access," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who represents Oakland and pressed for the DOJ to drop the case against Harborside. "For decades, Harborside has helped ensure members of our community can access their medicine. It's past time for the federal government to stop standing between these patients and their medicine."
"Harborside Health Center has been a strong positive presence in Oakland, both for the patients they serve, the workers they employ, and for the vital public services that are supported by their tax revenues," said Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. "I am glad that Oakland's work on the federal case helped keep Harborside open during this dispute, and heartened to know that the threat against them is now removed."
The federal war on medical marijuana in California appears to be ending with a whimper, not a bang.