The city of Oakland moved last week to prevent federal law enforcement from closing its biggest marijuana dispensary, the largest pushback since an aggressive crackdown on California's booming pot industry began last year.
Oakland sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and San Francisco U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag last Wednesday after the Justice Department attempted to seize the building that houses Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary that generates more than $1 million in local tax revenue annually.
Harborside's lawyers said the lawsuit is the first by a municipality since the federal government began efforts to close marijuana dispensaries in California, Colorado, and elsewhere by confiscating property rather than prosecuting criminals. Under federal law, marijuana is illegal, but 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its sale and use for medicinal purposes.
Oakland's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, comes only weeks before the Nov. 6 election, one that is "without a doubt, the most important one yet," in regard to marijuana legalization, according to the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) website.
Voters in three states—Colorado, Washington, and Oregon—will decide whether to legalize and tax recreational marijuana similar to alcohol and cigarettes, while Montana and Massachusetts have medicinal marijuana on their ballot.
Despite the Justice Department's bold campaign to close pot shops, the Obama administration has remained mum on what it plans to do if these landmark initiatives pass. Last month, nine former heads of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sent a letter to Holder urging him take a strong public stance against the legalization initiatives.
Marijuana advocates have also criticized the Obama administration's stance on marijuana. In his 2008 campaign, President Obama voiced support for medical marijuana "for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs," while also vowing not to "use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana." But in recent interviews, he clarified that he never committed to a "give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana."
Republican contender Mitt Romney has taken a more resolute stance on both medical and recreational use of marijuana, calling it an "entry way into a drug culture" for young people and promising to fight its legalization "tooth and nail."
In California, vague state laws and cities' fruitless efforts to regulate pot dispensaries have contributed to their widespread growth since voters approved medical marijuana in 1996. Last October, the state's four U.S. attorneys said the dispensaries violated both federal and state laws. California requires operators to be non-profit primary caregivers to their patients and to distribute marijuana strictly for medical purposes. Since then, federal authorities have shut at least 600 dispensaries statewide.
While nearly 180 California cities have banned pot shops, San Francisco and Oakland have fiercely defended them, continuing to issue permits to new dispensaries. Harborside claims to be the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world, with more than 100,000 patients and $20 million in sales annually.
Oakland City attorney Barbara Parker said in a written statement that the city took action against the Justice Department to protect patients from having to go to the black market for marijuana.
But many speculate the lawsuit is a guise to protect the city's marijuana revenues.
"People on both sides know these dispensaries are really a front for drug addicts," said Randy Thomasson, director of SaveCalifornia.com, a Sacramento nonprofit that speaks out against the dangers of marijuana. "Oakland should be able to see the great damage done to individuals and neighborhoods where these dispensaries are making buckets of money."