Feds Target Harborside Health Center — California’s Largest, Most Prominent Medical Cannabis DispensaryJuly 12, 2012
Many of California’s most prominent and well-respected medical cannabis dispensaries and related facilities — including Oaksterdam University, Berkeley Patients Group, and Harborside Health Center (HHC) — flourished under the George W. Bush administration. But they’ll be lucky to survive President Barack Obama’s first term.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors targeted Harborside Health Center in Oakland, as well as its sister facility in San Jose, for closure and civil asset forfeiture. In court papers filed by the US Attorney for the northern district of California, Melinda Haag, the federal government alleges that Harborside is “operating in violation of federal law” by providing cannabis to state-qualified patients.
The actions taken by the US Department of Justice stand in sharp contrast statements made by President Obama prior to his election, when he pledged to no longer use federal “Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws” regulating the physician authorized use and distribution of medical cannabis — a promise this administration has repeatedly broken. The actions also contradict more recent statements made by US Attorney Eric Holder to Congress in June when he asserted that Justice officials are solely targeting individuals who are “taking advantage of those state laws and going beyond what those states have authorized.”
Yet despite Eric Holder and the President’s claims to the contrary, the DOJ’s actions against Harborside are consistent with a growing trend by the Obama administration to target and close many of the state’s most prominent, longstanding, and well-respected medical cannabis operations — including the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (1996-2011), Berkeley Patients Group (2000-2012), and El Camino Wellness (2008-2012).
In April, approximately 100 federal agents raided Oaksterdam University, a brick-and-mortar cannabis trade school in downtown Oakland, and several other properties rented by the facility’s founder Richard Lee. (To date, no criminal charges have been filed against Lee and O.U. has since re-opened.) Internal e-mails from the Oakland Police Department, made public earlier this week, reveal that local law enforcement officials had virtually no advance notice of the federal government’s actions against Oaksterdam, which they criticized as “resource-draining; … [it] exposed our staff to more conflict (harm) as well as complaints than necessary.”
Commenting on this week’s action, US Attorney Melinda Haag pronounced:
“This office has used its limited resources to address those marijuana dispensaries that operate close to schools, parks and playgrounds. As I have said in the past, this is a non-exclusive list of factors relevant to whether we should commence civil forfeiture actions against marijuana properties, and circumstances may require us to address other situations.
I now find the need to consider actions regarding marijuana superstores such as Harborside. The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state’s medical marijuana laws, and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need.
The filing of the civil forfeiture complaints against the two Harborside properties is part of our measured effort to address the proliferation of illegal marijuana businesses in the Northern District of California.”
However, in contrast to Haag’s public statement, the federal complaint filed Sunday cites no alleged violations of state law, instead claiming that HHC’s actions violate the federal US Controlled Substances Act.
Speaking at a press conference today (Watch a recording of it here.)– Steve DeAngelo, Executive Director of Harborside Health Center — rebuffed Haag’s claims, stating that HHC is neither close to a school, nor out of compliance with state law. “Harborside has nothing to hide or be ashamed of,” DeAngelo said in a prepared statement. “We will contest the DOJ action openly and in public, and through all legal means at our disposal. We look forward to our day in court, and are confident that justice is on our side.”
Harborside Health Center is licensed by the city of Oakland. It employs over 100 people and is Oakland’s second largest retail tax payer. Last year, HHC paid combined taxes in excess of $3 million, over a million dollars of which went directly to the City of Oakland.
According to a post on the facility’s website, Harborside Health Center intends to remain open despite federal threats. It states: “Harborside is not in imminent danger of closing. We intend to keep the commitment we made six years ago to provide our patients with safe access to the medicine their doctors have recommended, for as long as we possibly can.”
The US Attorney’s actions come the same week that former US House Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi called on Congress to reform federal marijuana laws to acknowledge the plant’s therapeutic utility. Representative Pelosi had previously criticized the Obama administration’s actions this past May, stating, “I have strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California, and undermine a policy that has been in place under which the federal government did not pursue individuals whose actions complied with state laws providing for medicinal marijuana.”
Harborside Health Center estimates that it serves over 100,000 members. The facility had previously been engaged in litigation with the Internal Revenue Service, which determined that the dispensary could not deduct standard business expenses such as payroll and rent, because it is involved in what the agency terms “the trafficking of controlled substances.”
For decades opponents of marijuana law reform policies have falsely argued that marijuana is a ‘gateway’ to drug abuse — a guilt-by-association charge that implies that because tens of millions of people have used cannabis and a minority of these tens of millions have also tried other drugs that somehow it must have been the pot that triggered the hard drug use.
But while reformers have been consistent — and accurate — to point out that the so-called ‘gateway theory’ lacks any statistical support (for example, the U.S. government contends that more than four in ten Americans have used cannabis, yet fewer than two percent have ever tried heroin), few in our movement have publicized the fact that for many people cannabis can be a powerful ‘exit drug’ for those looking to curb or cease their use of alcohol, opiates, or narcotics. For instance:
A 2010 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal demonstrating that cannabis-using adults enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs fared equally or better than nonusers in various outcome categories, including treatment completion.
A 2009 survey published in the Harm Reduction Journal finding that 40 percent of respondents said used marijuana as a substitute for alcohol, and 26 percent used it to replace their former use of more potent illegal drugs.
A 2009 study published in the American Journal on Addictions reporting that moderate cannabis use and improved retention in naltrexone treatment among opiate-dependent subjects in a New York state inpatient detoxification program.
A 2009 preclinical study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology demonstrating that oral THC suppressed sensitivity to opiate dependence and conditioning.
Based on this and other emerging evidence, investigators at the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California are now enrolling residents in twelve-step-like classes that use cannabis to quit heroin, pills, cigarettes, alcohol, and other potentially addictive substances.
Oaklanders Quitting Oxycontin with Cannabis
via The East Bay Express
For years, there have been anecdotal reports about people using cannabis to quit harder drugs. The process is called “substitution”, and it’s a tactic that’s beginning to be endorsed by the “harm reduction” philosophy of mental health.
… So Harborside crafted a program that’s similar to traditional twelve-step programs, but ignores the pot smoking.
… Janichek is tracking the outcomes of Harborside’s free, cannabis-positive mental health services, with the goal of extrapolating the data into guidelines and replicating the services in other dispensaries.
It will be interesting to see the results of this program in the coming months — as well as the response (read: outcry) from the traditional drug treatment community.
One can expect that Harborside’s findings will further undermine the notion that cannabis is an alleged ‘gateway’ to hard drug use, and strengthen the argument that the plant may, in fact, be a useful tool for deterring the initiation or continuation of drug abuse.