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The Pushback Against the Feds' Over-the-Top Anti-Pot Crusade

Oakland and Berkeley defend local cannabis regulation, taking U.S. attorneys to court.
 
 
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Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, met with Steve DeAngelo, the Oakland-based executive director of California’s largest marijuana dispensary, and former Microsoft executive Jamen Shively on July 8. After the meeting, Fox told reporters that legalization is the only way to end the violence of Mexican drug cartels, which he said was a result of the U.S. government’s war on drugs.

As a result of illegal drug cartels, 40 people a day die on average in Mexico, and almost 90,000 people have died since 2006. That is almost twice the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War (58,220 casualties). Mexico’s cartels are deriving 40 to 70 percent of their revenue from cannabis, DeAngelo told AlterNet.

“Fox and other people legitimately concerned about public safety have no real ax to grind as far as cannabis goes. They’ve recognized the cost of prohibition is way too high to tolerate any longer,” DeAngelo said.

DeAngelo’s medical cannabis dispensary, Harborside Health Center, was the target of a federal crackdown in May. Despite the fact that it has operated without incident and within city and state laws since its founding six years ago, U.S. prosecutors filed a forfeiture case to seize its building in 2011. They claim the dispensary—which distributes more than 70 strains of cannabis was a "superstore" serving 100,000 customers in violation of federal law.

In an unprecedented move, the city of Oakland came to the defense of the local dispensary as the first California city ever to challenge federal threats against a local medical cannabis facility. In City of Oakland v. Eric Holder, Oakland sued the federal prosecutor to block Harborside's closing. On July 3, Judge Maria-Elena James granted a motion to stay by the city of Oakland that effectively delays the feds' case against Harborside for more than 15 months.

On July 3, Oakland’s neighboring city, Berkeley, become the second city in the state to directly challenge the federal government crackdown. Berkeley has filed a claim aiming to protect the largest of its three dispensaries, Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), in response to federal prosecutors’ threats to seize BPG’s assets. BPG has provided medical cannabis to Berkeley patients since 1999 three years after the state of California legalized medical marijuana.

Berkeley is claiming that the federal government is improperly interfering with the city’s financial and regulatory interests as well as residents’ medical interests.

Berkeley city councilmember Kriss Worthington, District 7, says while city councilmembers fight with each other all the time over environmental, labor and business policy, the decision to defend the dispensary against federal prosecutors “wasn’t controversial at all.”

“The more moderate people were worried about the impact on public safety, the more progressive people worried about the impact on health,” he says. “Everybody was worried about, ‘Why is this person interfering with the most highly regulated part of our entire system?’”

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who brought the action against BPG, has previously used federal asset forfeiture laws to target and close a number medical marijuana dispensaries, even when those dispensaries have longstanding relationships with the cities in which they are located and comply with state and local laws. Citing proximity to Duboce Park playground as the reason, she targeted San Francisco’s Vapor Room, which as a result closed its doors for good last July.

Since the federal government launched a renewed effort in Oct. 2011, prosecutors have been shutting down medical cannabis operations across states like California where they are protected by state laws. In Montana, where medical cannabis is also legal, prosecutors have been crusading against medical cannabis growers, on a quest to put them behind bars. Thousands have lost their jobs and formerly regulated businesses have been forced underground. Meanwhile, federal reports show that the medical marijuana industry generates upward of $100 million in tax revenue for California per year.