Justin Monticello, Reason.com
Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, is the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world, serving nearly 200,000 patients and distributing $25 million in cannabis per year. It does so out in the open, under the auspices of California law and Oakland’s regulatory regime. Federal prosecutors, however, maintain an unfriendly stance on state-legal medical marijuana: it’s still illegal under federal law, and must be stopped.
Since 2009, the Department of Justice has repeatedly directed its U.S. attorneys not to bring legal action against cannabusinesses operating in clear compliance with state law. But in 2011, the federal prosecutors in California announced a crackdown on dispensaries, shutting down hundreds through civil forfeiture actions. The prosecutor for the northern district that covers Oakland, Melinda Haag, has been particularly persistent.
“In July of 2012, a civil forfeiture notice was taped to our front door, and we were shocked,” says Harborside founder Steve DeAngelo, “because our model has always been about legal compliance and responsibility.”
DeAngelo opened Harborside in 2006 to be the first of a new breed of dispensary that was safe, transparent, and beneficial to both patients and the surrounding community. “For many years, I’ve dreamed of creating an environment that was really worthy of this magnificent, almost magic plant,” says DeAngelo.
Harborside offers a litany of medical support structures, including free substance abuse counseling, holistic care, and services tailored to the needs of both elderly patients and children. After all the commercial labs in the Bay Area refused DeAngelo’s request to test his cannabis due to federal law, he simply started his own facility, Steep Hill Labs, which went on to pioneer testing methodologies and treatments. Harborside became the first dispensary in the world to lab test all of its medicine.
“Nobody, including U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, has ever made any allegation that Harborside has violated California laws regarding cannabis—nobody,” states DeAngelo plainly. In direct contrast with the factors listed by Haag as justification for the crackdown, DeAngelo stresses that Harborside is far from being a profiteer that attracts a nasty criminal element. In fact, its neighborhood has seen a significant reduction in crime since its opening, it has no weapons or barbed wire on the premises, it is certified yearly as a non-profit, and it is more than 1,000 feet away from any sensitive sites, like playgrounds or schools.
For Melinda Haag, it’s size that matters. “Somehow, she argued, simply because we had so many patients, that it would be more likely that people would be breaking the law,” says DeAngelo. “She never really explained that theory.”
With the crackdown extending to other reputable cannabusinesses such as Oaksterdam University, the city of Oakland became worried about the crisis that could ensue if the responsible distribution mechanisms were shut down. So the city decided to join Harborside’s case and sue the Department of Justice to seek relief for injuries to its regulatory regime, tax revenue, and citizens’ health and safety.
Attorney Cedric Chao took the case pro bono on behalf of Oakland’s city attorney. “When Oakland issued its permits, the black market in Oakland for marijuana dropped,” says Chao. “These patients are not going to just stop and say, ‘OK, that’s great. I’m gonna go back to my pain.’ They’re going to go on the streets.”
The fundamental issue now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is whether or not Oakland is able to join Harborside in its underlying civil forfeiture case. But if you thought Haag might sing a different tune after a major U.S. city sided with a pot shop against the federal government, think again.
Even after Congress twice passed bills barring the DOJ from using federal funds on cases such as Harborside’s, after all other U.S. attorneys in California dropped their remaining civil forfeiture cases, and after further guidance from the DOJ that prosecutors should look the other way on recreational marijuana where it is now legal, Melinda Haag soldiers on in her crusade against Harborside. “The federal government is—whether you want to call them hypocritical or schizophrenic—it’s confused,” says Chao.