Obama's War on Medical Marijuana Moves Slowly

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Dispensaries Targeted For Shutdown by Feds Still Open -- Nearly a Year Later

The day started out hot and stayed hot Friday in the Mission District, where a quiet commercial storefront was open for business. A few customers came and went, ducking in from the sizzling sun into the cooler, darker sales floor. Out back, in between bites of an Ike's sandwich, the store's operator complained that someone from the competition had been handing out flyers in front of the store, sending business up the block.

Hard to believe that there's a war going on -- and that this, Shambhala Healing Center, is the supposed front lines.

Almost two months after the federal Justice Department moved to seize the building where the city-licensed dispensary operates, Shambhala is still open for business, collecting state sales taxes on transactions which the federal government views as felonies.

Same goes for Berkeley Patients Group in the East Bay -- and for the granddaddy survivor of them all, Harborside Health Center, which is still open for business nearly a year after receiving what many thought was a death sentence from the feds.

In many ways, Barack Obama is the marijuana president. His election -- and subsequent comments that marijuana wasn't a priority (a nod to legal drug users seemingly codified by a much-cited Justice Department memo) -- ushered in a period of unprecedented, exponential growth in both the number of state-legal, taxpaying storefronts selling medical marijuana and the number of people growing it, legally and illegally, in backyards, back rooms, and backwoods locations all over the state.

Shambhala is the first San Francisco-based pot club that federal authorities have sought to shut down by means of a property forfeiture. Asset forfeitures are a rarely used tool in the federal crackdown on state-legal medical marijuana; eight dispensaries in San Francisco voluntarily ended business after receiving letters from U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag which warned of asset forfeiture beginning in Oct. 2011.

Asset forfeiture proceedings -- the government can legally seize property which is acquired from the sale of illegal drugs or houses the sale of illegal drugs -- were filed against Harborside last summer and against Berkeley Patients Group earlier in the year.

Both BPG and Shambhala re-opened for business after closing for a time following receipt of a U.S. Attorney letter. BPG moved down the street, while Shambhala -- which has a "lawful lease" from its Beverly Hills owners -- reopened in the same location following Barack Obama's re-election after it closed in summer 2012.

The attorney for all three dispensaries is Henry Wykowski. The San Francisco defense attorney -- a former federal prosecutor who worked in the Northern District offices before going to private practice -- noted that all three dispensaries can remain open while the federal government's forfeiture attempts are challenged.

"They are open, and they intend to remain open," Wykowski said Friday.

Shambhala is due in court next on August 30, when a motion to strike portions of the government's complaint will be heard.

It remains to be seen how much stomach the federal government truly has for seizing property of California business owners who are obeying state law. Prior eviction proceedings, held in state court, failed because the dispensaries had lawful leases.

So for the time being, as the court cases drag on, business goes on, too.





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