The world’s “Biggest Pot Shop,” a Bay Area cultural and political staple, has escaped the claws of the federal government yet again.
Federal officials agreed in May to give up their four-year attempt to shutter Harborside Health Center of Oakland, a shop with more than 100,000 patients. Local leaders announced the decision early in the month.
The news was music to the business community and government of Oakland, where neighbors banded together through years of court battles and prosecutions to save the beloved store. It is a cannabis landmark that serves massive numbers of customers, led by a founder, Steve DeAngelo, who is a fixture in high-profile debates about medical marijuana.
Free from federal prosecution
“We celebrate the release from federal prosecution,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf. “We believe in compassion, we believe in health.”
Both locals and outside observers noted the profound implications of the government’s legal surrender. Stanford law professor Robert MacCoun, a drug policy expert, said the announcement signals a national shift toward a “new model” for cannabis law.
“The framework is moving from the war on drugs to tricky issues of regulation, taxation, and who is going to be in control of this major new industry,” he said.
New regulations enacted in Oakland
Just hours after the Harborside decision was made public, Oakland City Council members voted unanimously to enact tight new regulations and taxes on the city’s medical marijuana industry. The vote came after a long public hearing on the matter.
The federal government spent years taking stabs at Harborside but launched a sustained assault in 2012. That was when now-former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag filed civil lawsuits against Harborside and other legitimate medical marijuana providers in Northern California.
Part of that campaign involved asset forfeiture – seizing buildings owned by pot providers, as well as buildings rented to them. Large shops such as Harborside were designated “marijuana superstores” and subjected to more scrutiny than other dispensaries.
Smaller stores forced to close
The push to close Harborside failed, but it managed to drive hundreds of smaller shops out of business. For example, Haag charged the Marin Alliance dispensary with selling marijuana within 1,000 feet of a children’s baseball diamond, a crime with a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison. Marin Alliance quickly closed its doors.
“As of today, Harborside Health Center is in the clear and will no longer have to worry about a looming raid,” said Oakland Council Member Rebecca Kaplan. “Supporters are pleased to hear that the case has been dropped so that patients suffering from chronic pain can have peace of mind that they will be able to get their medicine through safe dispensaries. By taking this stance in Oakland, we have shown the rest of the country what’s possible.”
DeAngelo said the conclusion of the lawsuit against his business “signals the beginning of the end of federal prohibition.”
Cannabis is legal for medical use in more than two dozen states and for recreation in four, plus the District of Columbia. But it remains banned for any purpose under federal anti-drug laws.