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City of Berkeley fights U.S. civil action against marijuana dispensary

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Thu July 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Feds file a civil forfeiture complaint to close a marijuana dispensary in Berkeley
  • Berkeley, California, officials respond in court saying feds are trying to harm city
  • "It is time for the federal government to wake up and stop these ... actions," mayor says
  • The Berkeley "push-back" follows a similar local challenge in Oakland, group says

(CNN) -- The city of Berkeley, California, is trying to stop the U.S. government from closing a medical marijuana dispensary and filed a federal court claim Wednesday, attorneys said.

In the latest strategy against federal attempts to shut down marijuana shops, the city contends the U.S. civil action would harm the city by depriving it of hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes, paid over a period of years, according to Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group whose attorneys are representing the city.

In May, the U.S. government filed a complaint for forfeiture against a property leased by the retail marijuana store Berkeley Patients Group at 2366 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, according to court papers filed by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag.

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The federal complaint asserted the dispensary was illegally selling marijuana, which under federal laws is a controlled substance, court papers said. Also, Haag noted that the dispensary was operating within 1,000 feet of two preschools, the complaint said.

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The dispute over the Berkeley dispensary is an example of the legal conflict between the federal government and local marijuana clinics that are legal under some state laws such as in California, said Amanda Reiman, a policy manager for the alliance in San Francisco.

Berkeley city officials also asserted the importance for cities to regulate local marijuana clinics without federal interference.

"It is time for the federal government to wake up and stop these asset forfeiture actions," Mayor Tom Bates said in a statement. "Berkeley Patients Group has complied with the rules and caused no problems in the city. The federal government should not use its scarce resources to harass local law-abiding businesses."

More than two weeks after the federal forfeiture complaint was filed in May, the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution stating that the dispensary operators "contributed significantly to our community, providing good jobs and paying millions of dollars in taxes. They have improved the lives and assisted the end-of-life transitions of thousands of patients. They have been active supporters of dozens of Berkeley community organizations," the alliance said.

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Reiman said municipalities are frustrated with federal forfeiture attempts against marijuana dispensaries. Some smaller cities in California have refrained from allowing dispensaries out of fear of federal action, Reiman said.

The Berkeley claim follows a similar claim filed by Oakland city officials against the U.S. government, which has filed a forfeiture complaint against Harborside Health Center, which describes itself as the world's largest medical cannabis dispensary and was featured on the Discovery Channel's "Weed Wars" series.

On Wednesday, a federal judge issued a stay in the forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, as requested by the city of Oakland, court documents said.

"I think this is something that we're going to see -- more and more cities making a push-back," said Reiman of the alliance. "They're still going to fight and they can't be threatened away with landlord letters."

Meanwhile, dispensary advocates are pushing a legislative proposal in the California statehouse that would create a state regulating body over marijuana cultivation and dispensaries -- instead of leaving cities to regulate the dispensaries, said Lynne Lyman, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

New Mexico, Colorado and the District of Columbia now have such a state regulatory system, and federal forfeiture actions haven't been seen in those states, Lyman said.

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