Berkeley Sues Feds Over Medical Marijuana Closure. When Will S.F. Join Legal Battle?

Categories: Marijuana
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Oakland, Berkeley Both Fighting Cannabis Crackdown; San Francisco Not Joining Anytime Soon

It may be time to face facts: The East Bay is simply more down with marijuana than San Francisco.

The City of Berkeley has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice in an attempt to block federal prosecutors from seizing the property that houses the medical marijuana dispensary Berkeley Patients Group, Berkeleyside is reporting today.

The lawsuit means that the governments of both Oakland and Berkeley -- whose mayor, Tom Bates, openly criticized the efforts of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag (herself a Berkeley resident and Bates constituent) to shut down the state-legal business -- are openly and actively fighting federal efforts to shutter licensed and taxpaying dispensaries.

So the East Bay is fighting the crackdown. In San Francisco, the home of some of the Democratic Washington establishment's heaviest hitters? Not so much. A recent letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, telling the feds to respect local medical marijuana laws, didn't even earn Mayor Ed Lee's consideration.

San Francisco has seen eight dispensaries closed due to the federal crackdown on California's state-legal cannabis industry since October 2011. These city-licensed clubs, which have yet to violate local or state law -- they did break the federal Controlled Substances Act by providing medical cannabis -- all received letters warning of stiff fines or property seizures unless the pot sales stopped.

One, Shambhala Healing Center, reopened after President Barack Obama's re-election; that club is now facing the same forfeiture efforts but remains open ahead of its next court date in late August. 

The federal government can, by law, seize properties -- including cash and goods as well as real estate -- that were acquired via the sale of illegal drugs or are used to sell illegal drugs. That would mean any place in the state where a dispensary is located could be seized.

Asset forfeiture is a relative newcomer to the federal war on medical marijuana, and has been a more useful threat than reality: Harborside's case, filed nearly a year ago, is still in the courts, and the dispensary has remained open.

San Francisco may be less apt to go the way of the East Bay for a simple reason: money. Both Oakland and Berkeley have laws on the books that allow the locality to tax the sale of medical marijuana, and both ergo get big bucks from their pot shops. Harborside alone brings in $3 million a year in tax revenue, according to one estimate.

San Francisco has no local medical marijuana tax aside from state sales tax, and with the technology boom pushing the city budget to an all-time record of $7.9 billion, there's less fiscal and political pressure. 

But there's also little doubt that the city family in S.F. is just not that into fighting the feds on drug policy. At its meeting in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution that asked the federal government to respect local drug policy.

Lee did not sign -- but he did support some tech initiatives, his spokeswoman told us.

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