In 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s office embarked on a miscalculated course of legal action intended to force closure of medical cannabis dispensaries operating legally under California state law. As part of a now ill-fated legal strategy lead by Melinda Haag of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of CA, Haag filed civil forfeiture actions against the landlords of Bay Area dispensaries including Berkeley Patients Group, Shambhala Healing Center, and Harborside Health Center seeking to “quietly” force closure of the dispensaries through enforcement of civil rather than criminal laws.
As part of this strategy, the U.S. Attorney’s office began to issue letters to landlords leasing to dispensary operators with threats of property seizure and the tactic often scared landlords leasing to dispensaries into shuttering their doors. Rather than close their doors, Shambhala Healing Center, Harborside Health Center, and Berkeley Patients Group have vigorously defended against the civil forfeiture actions despite federal laws criminalizing cannabis. In fact, both the City of Berkeley and the City of Oakland have attempted to join the federal suits in support of the dispensaries, and despite strong political and community opposition, Haag’s office has continued to aggressively pursue the civil forfeiture cases.
In December 2014, the passage of Obama’s spending bill prohibited use of federal funds by the DOJ to crack down on cannabis activities in states that have adopted cannabis laws. Last month, a new policy issued by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder prevents federal agencies from seizing assets without a warrant as Haag’s office is attempting to do in the civil forfeiture cases at issue here. As more states turn to legalization, the tides are shifting at a federal level, and the federal judiciary has responded by issuing several recent and important pro-cannabis decisions in the dispensary forfeiture cases.
First, in December 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston ruled that Shambhala’s lease was legal, and tossed Haag’s forfeiture complaint out as a moot given a $150,000 payment made to the U.S. Attorney’s office by the Shambhala’s landlord to settle the case. Second, on February 3, 2015, a conservative 3 panel judge for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals chastised Haag’s office for continuing to wage a losing battle against the dispensaries. The 9th Circuit panel indicated that it was a rouge battle improperly pursued by Haag in direct violation of the passage of the federal spending bill defunding prosecution of state-protected cannabis activities and Holder’s recent policy shift preventing warrantless seizures. Judge Richard Tallman even suggested that Obama ask for Haag’s resignation for continuing to pursue an unwarranted course of action against Harborside’s landlord. Lastly, on February 6, 2015, in another key victory in federal court, Judge Jon S. Tigar of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order allowing Berkeley Patients Group to continue to operate while the court considers the pending civil forfeiture action. Given the recent funding and policy shifts at a federal level, perhaps Haag’s office should abandon its sinking ship of meritless lawsuits against state-protected cannabis activities and devote resources to prosecuting actual criminals, not patients seeking safe access to medicine.
Recent Spending Bill: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-new-spending-bill-just-ended-the-federal-war-on-legalized-weed-2014-12
Holder’s Policy to Reform Forfeiture Laws: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/16/holder-asset-forfeiture_n_6488816.html
Shambhala Healing Center: http://mmjbusinessdaily.com/dispensary-notches-big-win-in-important-court-battle-with-feds/
Harborside Health Center: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Court-questions-federal-action-against-Oakland-6059956.php?cmpid=email-mobile
Berkeley Patients Group: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/10/berkeley-patients-group_n_6648268.html
CANNABIS PATIENT RESOURCE
CPR is a blog hosted by CBD Professionals. CPR's aim is to help qualified medical cannabis patients keep abreast of the latest information on California's rapidly changing laws impacting patients' legal rights.