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Oakland sues U.S. to halt closure of marijuana dispensary

By Laird Harrison

OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - The city of Oakland has sued to block U.S. authorities from closing down a medical marijuana dispensary that bills itself as the world's largest, marking the latest clash with federal authorities over California's cannabis industry.

The lawsuit, which was filed by Oakland's city attorney in U.S. District Court, seeks an injunction to halt efforts by federal prosecutors to shut down Harborside Health Center through civil forfeiture actions they filed in July against two properties where the clinic operates.

Harborside, which has been featured on the Discovery Channel reality TV show "Weed Wars," says it is the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world and serves more than 100,000 patients in a "beautiful waterfront location."

"This lawsuit is about protecting the rights of legitimate medical patients," Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a written statement. "I am deeply dismayed that the federal government would seek to deny these rights and deprive thousands of seriously ill Californians of access to safe, affordable and effective medicine."

The legal action marks the latest broadside in an ongoing battle between the federal government - which holds that pot is an illegal drug - and local officials in California, where voters in 1996 made the state the first in the nation to allow cannabis to be sold as medicine.

Since then 16 other states and the District of Columbia have followed California's lead. Colorado, Oregon and Washington state all have initiatives on the November ballot that would legalize sale of the drug for recreational use.

Oakland officials are not seeking damages in the lawsuit, which names as defendants Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for the district, and Attorney General Eric Holder. Calls to U.S. Northern California Attorney Melinda Haag's office, and to the Department of Justice, were not returned.

'BIZARRE TWIST'

But Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to the Obama administration's drug policy director, said that California's medical marijuana law is frequently abused.

"This lawsuit is just the latest bizarre twist in California's laughable medical marijuana program, a system where over 95 percent of users have no life-threatening illness," Sabet said.

Oakland officials in the past have been openly critical of tough federal action against medical marijuana operations, but the filing of a lawsuit represents the city's most confrontational stance to date.

Medical marijuana dispensaries - which sometimes offer massages and other non-medical services - are issued permits by the city of Oakland, perhaps California's most tolerant municipality when it comes to medical cannabis. In 2010 the city adopted plans to regulate large-scale cannabis farms, then backed off under threat from the federal government.

The city requires dispensaries to submit business plans, submit to audits and background checks, hire security, and install lighting and cameras in parking lots, among other regulations, according to Cedric Chao, who is acting as outside counsel to the city on the lawsuit.

The dispensaries also have to furnish samples of marijuana to outside laboratories that verify the quality, Chao said, adding that the city expects to collect $1.4 million in taxes from dispensaries in 2012.

The city's lawsuit against the federal government is not unprecedented. About a decade ago, the city and county of Santa Cruz in northern California along with a local medical marijuana collective sued the federal government after a raid on the collective, said Tamar Todd, a senior staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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