UPDATE 1-Oakland sues U.S. to halt closure of marijuana dispensary


(Adds details, background) By Laird Harrison

OAKLAND, Calif., Oct. 11 (Reuters) - The city of Oakland hassued to block U.S. authorities from closing down a medicalmarijuana dispensary that bills itself as the world's largest,marking the latest clash with federal authorities overCalifornia's cannabis industry.

The lawsuit, which was filed by Oakland's city attorney inU.S. District Court, seeks an injunction to halt efforts byfederal prosecutors to shut down Harborside Health Centerthrough civil forfeiture actions they filed in July against twoproperties where the clinic operates.

Harborside, which has been featured on the Discovery Channelreality TV show "Weed Wars," says it is the largest medicalmarijuana dispensary in the world and serves more than 100,000patients in a "beautiful waterfront location."

"This lawsuit is about protecting the rights of legitimatemedical patients," Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said ina written statement. "I am deeply dismayed that the federalgovernment would seek to deny these rights and deprive thousandsof seriously ill Californians of access to safe, affordable andeffective medicine."

The legal action marks the latest broadside in an ongoingbattle between the federal government - which holds that pot isan illegal drug - and local officials in California, wherevoters in 1996 made the state the first in the nation to allowcannabis to be sold as medicine.

Since then 16 other states and the District of Columbia havefollowed California's lead. Colorado, Oregon and Washingtonstate all have initiatives on the November ballot that wouldlegalize sale of the drug for recreational use.

Oakland officials are not seeking damages in the lawsuit,which names as defendants Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney forthe district, and Attorney General Eric Holder. Calls to U.S.Northern California Attorney Melinda Haag's office, and to theDepartment of Justice, were not returned.


But Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to the Obamaadministration's drug policy director, said that California'smedical marijuana law is frequently abused.

"This lawsuit is just the latest bizarre twist inCalifornia's laughable medical marijuana program, a system whereover 95 percent of users have no life-threatening illness,"Sabet said.

Oakland officials in the past have been openly critical oftough federal action against medical marijuana operations, butthe filing of a lawsuit represents the city's mostconfrontational stance to date.

Medical marijuana dispensaries - which sometimes offermassages and other non-medical services - are issued permits bythe city of Oakland, perhaps California's most tolerantmunicipality when it comes to medical cannabis. In 2010 the cityadopted plans to regulate large-scale cannabis farms, thenbacked off under threat from the federal government.

The city requires dispensaries to submit business plans,submit to audits and background checks, hire security, andinstall lighting and cameras in parking lots, among otherregulations, according to Cedric Chao, who is acting as outsidecounsel to the city on the lawsuit.

The dispensaries also have to furnish samples of marijuanato outside laboratories that verify the quality, Chao said,adding that the city expects to collect $1.4 million in taxesfrom dispensaries in 2012.

The city's lawsuit against the federal government is notunprecedented. About a decade ago, the city and county of SantaCruz in northern California along with a local medical marijuanacollective sued the federal government after a raid on thecollective, said Tamar Todd, a senior staff attorney with theDrug Policy Alliance.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb;Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and EricWalsh)