Court panel raises concerns about federal attempt to close California pot dispensary

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SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court questioned Tuesday why the Department of Justice was trying to shut down a large California medical marijuana dispensary in light of recent indications the department would not go after pot stores.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals expressed its concerns about the federal action against Harborside Health Center in Oakland while hearing arguments in a lawsuit brought by the city to prevent the closure.

Harborside bills itself as the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the country.

The Department of Justice is using its property seizure powers to try to get Harborside evicted. Oakland joined the legal fight three years ago, filing a lawsuit against the Department of Justice arguing that the closure of Harborside would lead to a health and safety crisis in the city.

Medical marijuana users would turn to unregulated street dealers for the drug, and the city would lose tax revenue that could pay for more police offices and other services, it said.

The suit was thought to be the first brought by a local government on behalf of a pot shop.

Judge Stephen Murphy asked a Department of Justice attorney Tuesday why the agency had "picked this fight."

"The United States government, the president and the attorney general and the justice department is largely looking the other way in terms of medical marijuana facilities," Murphy said. "What's the end game here?"

The other members of the panel expressed similar concerns.

Adam Jed, an attorney with the Department of Justice, said he didn't know exactly why the U.S. Attorney's Office decided to seek the eviction. But he said some of the recent pronouncements about pot don't categorically say federal authorities will no longer take any civil or criminal action.

"They just lays out what the government believes is an efficient use of federal resources," he said.

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said at the time she initiated the forfeiture proceeding in 2012 that Harborside violated federal law by selling marijuana, even though medical marijuana was legal in California.

The Department of Justice more recently said it wouldn't interfere with state marijuana laws as long as the states tightly regulate the drug and make efforts to keep it from children, criminal drug cartels and other states. A spending measure signed into law by President Barack Obama in December included a provision blocking the Department of Justice from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in states that permit them.

The Tuesday hearing followed a judge's decision in 2013 to throw out Oakland's lawsuit. U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James said in that ruling that the civil forfeiture statute lays out a process for challenging a property seizure attempt and Oakland could not circumvent that by seeking court review.

Oakland appealed that decision.

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