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

Oakland and Berkeley defend local cannabis regulation, taking U.S. attorneys to court.

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.

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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 cannabiswas 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 1999three 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.

Sean Luse, manager at BPG, says the dispensary has done everything possible to comply with state and local laws. They were vetted by Berkeley city staff and elected officials, a public hearing was held to approve the location, and they even adhered to the U.S. attorney’s guideline requiring them to be located 1,000 feet from any schools, which is not state or local law.

“So, we were just very surprised and disappointed,” Luse said.

He adds that he’s grateful the city has come to BPG’s defense as the decision makes it clear that BPG is an incident-free member of the Berkeley community.

“When states like California and cities like Berkeley regulate medical cannabis distribution, it’s much safer, much more orderly and there are many benefits in terms of tax revenue and jobs,” he said. “It’s literally taking the crime off the streets and putting it into a state-controlled environment.”

Worthington calls BPG “the model example” of how a business should be run.

“I think it’s perverse that somebody would try to criminalize people who have gone to great lengths to follow city and state laws,” he says. “I guess it’s hard work to actually go after dangerous drug dealers, so rather than go after dangerous drug dealers it’s easier to go after a medical model that is very tightly regulated. They’re a much easier target.”

Berkeley’s claim, filed on July 3, states that the closure of BPG will likely cause an increased number of unregulated, unpermitted dispensaries and an increased number of illicit marijuana sales on the city’s streets, which will negatively impact Berkeley neighborhoods and businesses.  

“All three of our dispensaries have really been well-managed; they know what the rules are, what the laws are, and they follow them,” Worthington said. He added that he is hopeful that the city’s decision to step in and defend the local dispensary will be a wakeup call for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discourage U.S. attorneys from “doing counter-productive things” like targeting beneficial local businesses.  

DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center says the target of the federal crackdown on medical cannabis has not been bad operators.

“It has actually been those systems of local and state regulations that have worked very well,” he said. “That's why they're coming after places like [BPG] and [HHC] and the Vapor Room in San Francisco. Those are places that are paradigms of legitimacy and compliance.”

DeAngelo believes the reason the federal government is coming after medical cannabis providers in areas that have licensed medical cannabis programs is that federal prosecutors feel threatened by these successful systems of regulation.

“They know people in other parts of California and other parts of the U.S. see that regulated cannabis distribution has raised tax revenue, created well-paying jobs, reduced the burden on law enforcement, taken money and power away from street gangs and cartels, and made neighborhoods more beautiful and safe. Those are all good things, and federal prosecutors are afraid that when people all across the country see the benefits of regulating cannabis system in contrast to the downsides of prohibition, they're going to be embracing more regulated systems.”

He thinks Oakland’s victory is significant in that, as with Berkeley, it may encourage other cities and counties that have seen federal interference with their local ability to regulate, “to stand up and fight for their rights and the rights of their citizens.”

Citing the actions on the parts of Berkeley and Oakland, as well as the County Board of Supervisors in Mendocino Countywhich isrefusingto comply with a grand jury subpoena for documents regarding licensed medical cannabis within their countyDeAngelo says he anticipates a growing movement on the part of local governments.

“I think we're going to see a growing rebellion by city attorneys, by local law enforcement officials, against this federal policy that really just endangers our communities and has created a public safety crisis,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is that the suit filed against the federal government by the city of Oakland is part of a larger pattern of local jurisdictions beginning to stand up to the federal encroachments on their right to regulate cannabis.”

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.