OAKLAND (CBS SF) – Leaders of the Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland have praised a ruling in which a federal judge on Monday refused to order an immediate halt to drug sales at the facility.
But while the decision by U.S. Magistrate Maria-Elena James of San Francisco allows Harborside to continue operating for the time being, it represents only one skirmish in a longer-term battle.
The ruling sets the stage for a future trial on two pending forfeiture lawsuits in which the U.S. Justice Department is seeking to seize properties rented by Harborside for its Oakland store and a smaller branch in San Jose on the grounds that the facilities are used for illegal drug activities.
In Monday’s decision, James turned down requests by landlords of the two properties for injunctions prohibiting marijuana activities on the properties, saying that the owners could not use the government’s forfeiture bid as a mechanism for obtaining injunctions.
James said the forfeiture provisions of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act allows only the government and not a private entity to seek an injunction stopping alleged drug activities on property the government is seeking to forfeit.
Although the U.S. Justice Department is seeking forfeiture of the properties after a trial, “it has elected not to pursue” an immediate injunction, James noted.
Harborside Executive Director Steve DeAngelo said, “We are grateful that Judge James carefully considered the facts and arguments in the Harborside case, and decided to grant us our day in court.”
“We look forward to proving our case in front of a jury, and continue to believe we will prevail,” DeAngelo said.
Harborside attorney Henry Wykowski estimates that the trial may take place in about one year.
“Harborside will now be able to fully defend itself at trial. That is all we had asked, and the court has now agreed,” Wykowski said.
Harborside, co-founded by DeAngelo in 2006, describes itself as the nation’s largest medical cannabis dispensary, serving about 100,000 registered patients.
When announcing the forfeiture lawsuits in July, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag called Harborside a “superstore” and said, “The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws.”
Although California’s voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allows seriously ill patients to use marijuana for medical purposes, federal drug laws make no exception for the state law.
The Harborside cases are part of a law enforcement effort in which federal prosecutors in California in 2010 began filing forfeiture lawsuits against the landlords of dispensaries that the prosecutors considered to be large-scale commercial enterprises.
Arthur Hartinger, a lawyer for Harborside’s Oakland landlord, Ana Chretien, said he could not comment on James’s ruling.
In papers supporting the unsuccessful request for an injunction, Chretien’s lawyers argued she needed the court order to prevent the possible “profound harm” of forfeiture of her property.
In another angle to the case, the city of Oakland filed a separate lawsuit in October seeking to block the forfeiture bid.
Among other arguments, the city contends that because Harborside operated in compliance with state and city laws since 2006 without federal interference, the five-year statute of limitations for a civil forfeiture lawsuit has passed.
James is scheduled to hear arguments on a Justice Department request for dismissal of the city’s lawsuit on Jan. 31.
In Monday’s ruling, James turned down Oakland’s request to suspend the forfeiture proceedings until its lawsuit is resolved.
James said that since both Oakland and Harborside have raised the statute-of-limitations argument, it would be more efficient to allow the lawsuits to proceed together.
“Rather than stay the forfeiture actions, the better course is to allow each of the cases to proceed on a schedule that coordinates discovery and dispositive motions so that the parties can raise any and all challenges simultaneously,” James wrote.
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