Berkeley Strikes Back In Battle Over California’s Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Months after a medical marijuana dispensary was served a federal lawsuit, the city of Berkeley is fighting back by filing its own claim.
By @katierucke |
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    Federal authorities have announced plans to shut down one of California's oldest and most respected medical marijuana dispensaries. (Photo/Chuck Coker via Flickr)

    Federal authorities have announced plans to shut down one of California’s oldest and most respected medical marijuana dispensaries. (Photo/Chuck Coker via Flickr)

    Months after a Berkeley, Calif., medical marijuana dispensary was served a federal lawsuit that sought to seize and ultimately shut down the business, the city of Berkeley is fighting back by filing its own claim.

    On July 3, Berkeley officials filed a lawsuit against the federal government, saying Berkeley Patients Group has acted “in full compliance with the city of Berkeley’s medical marijuana ordinance, regulations, and zoning laws.”

    U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag says she sent the letter to BPG because the dispensary was located too close to preschools. She released a statement in May further explaining the decision to send the letter.

    “The marijuana industry has caused significant public health and safety problems in rural communities, urban centers and schools in the Northern District of California. Because some believe marijuana has medicinal value, however, we continue to take a measured approach and have only pursued asset forfeiture actions with respect to marijuana retail sales operations very near schools, parks or playgrounds, at the request of local law enforcement, or in one case, because of the sheer size of its distribution operations,” Haag said.

    But according to city officials, there are no schools around the dispensary and law enforcement has reported they have “virtually no problems” with the dispensary.

    The city, which is represented by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District California. The suit says that the closure of BPG will harm the city “through the loss of substantial revenue.” The closure will also result in an increase in the number of unregulated, unpermitted dispensaries and illicit marijuana sales, the city says.

    Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the city filed the lawsuit because “it is time for the federal government to wake up and stop these asset forfeiture actions.”

    “Berkeley Patients Group has complied with the rules and caused no problems in the city,” he said. “The federal government should not use its scarce resources to harass local law-abiding businesses.”

    California became the first U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana when it passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. Since then, the medical marijuana industry has imploded and generates upwards of $100 million in annual tax revenue for the state.

    According to a press release from the Drug Policy Alliance, BPG “has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city in taxes over the years.” It goes on to say that the federal government’s attempt to close the dispensary “undermines the city’s comprehensive plan to regulate and control medical marijuana, which was designed and implemented to positively impact the health and well-being of all Berkeley residents and to which the city has devoted a significant amount of time and resources.”


    Community rallies to save BPG

    As Mint Press News previously reported, when news of the federal lawsuit against BPG first broke earlier this year, many community members were upset that the Justice Department was once again trying to shut down one of California’s oldest medical marijuana dispensaries. To show their disapproval, community members held protests throughout the city.

    Steph Sherer, the executive director of Americans for Safe Access, addressed a crowd of protesters in Berkeley in May, saying, “The Obama administration’s ongoing war against patients is despicable and has to stop.”

    “This is a mean, vindictive move aimed at shutting down one of the oldest and well-respected dispensaries in the country,” she said.

    Berkeley City Councilmember Darryl Moore also publicly shared his opposition to the federal crackdown, adding that BPG has “served as a national model of the not-for-profit, services-based medical cannabis dispensary.”

    “They have improved the lives and assisted the end-of-life transitions of thousands of patients; been significant donors to dozens of other organizations in our city [and] shaped local, state and national policies around medical cannabis,” he said.

    At a press conference in May, an elderly female who has AIDS and is a BPG customer said the attempt to close the dispensary is “nothing short of murderous.”

    City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the government should spend its “scarce resources” on helping cities such as Oakland, Calif., with its gun violence, human trafficking and white-collar crime instead of targeting lawful pot clubs.


    Uncharted territory

    Though medical marijuana is legal in California, not every city allows it. Under the state’s Compassionate Use Act and Medical Marijuana Program, nothing requires every city in California to follow the state’s marijuana laws.

    Currently, about 200 California cities ban medical marijuana. Most of the bans have occurred in the past five years after the number of dispensaries skyrocketed. Marijuana opponents say they were concerned marijuana was becoming too easy to obtain, but some speculate local governments were receiving pressure from the federal government to shut down the dispensaries.

    Tamar Todd, a senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that the lawsuit against BPG by the federal government goes “against the wishes of the community” and undermines “Berkeley’s concerted efforts to control and regulate medical marijuana distribution within its borders.”

    “The U.S attorney’s action harms patients, the community, and the city — and benefits no one,” Todd said. “It is pure folly. Sadly, it is also deeply destructive folly.”

    As Mint Press News previously reported, threats against medical marijuana dispensaries are not new, especially in California. In addition to BPG, at least eight other pot shops in the San Francisco Bay area have received letters warning of property seizures and prison sentences if they are not shut down.

    Tom Angell, a drug policy reform activist and founder of Marijuana Majority, said the threatening letters that were sent to the dispensaries are the federal government’s way of trying to intimidate the marijuana industry out of existence.

    “Whoever is coordinating these attacks in the federal law enforcement apparatus is clearly terrified about what the increasing acceptance of a legal and regulated marijuana trade means for the drug war bureaucracy that employs them,” Angell said.

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