The head of America’s largest medical cannabis dispensary explains how and why he’s fighting back against the federal government’s misguided California crackdown.
On July 9, 2012, employees at Harborside Health Center in Oakland, CA, America’s largest medical cannabis dispensary, showed up for work only to find a letter taped to the door from Melinda Haag, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, informing them that the federal government had initiated civil asset-forfeiture proceedings against that property and Harborside’s second location in San Jose.
The subject of the Discovery Channel’s documentary series Weed Wars, Harborside has long held up as a model of regulated medical cannabis distribution, and enjoys wide and enthusiastic support in the local community, including among members of Oakland’s City Council, which issues its license to operate. Last year, Harborside paid more than $1 million in taxes, while employing more than 100 people. It is also a safe, reliable source of top-quality medicine for more than 100,000 registered medical cannabis patients seeking lab-tested flowers, concentrates, edibles, and clones.
In the weeks after the US Attorney’s asset-forfeiture notice, Harborside’s executive director, Steve DeAngelo, went to work with the recently raided Oaksterdam University, the medical cannabis advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access, and other allies and supporters to channel the growing outrage over this latest attack on patients and providers into a public rally aimed at holding the one-time marijuana enthusiast in the White House accountable for the actions of his Justice Department.
Timed to coincide with a visit by President Barack Obama to Oakland’s historic Fox Theater for a campaign-fundraising event, the rally began at City Hall before marching downtown amid chants of “Obama, keep your promise!” and “Fight crime, not cannabis!”
Once the smoke had cleared, DeAngelo reiterated his promise to keep Harborside’s doors open for as long as possible, while fighting the federal government’s forfeiture actions in court – a process that could take up to two years, with an outcome that is far from certain.
What was the primary message you hoped to send with the rally in Oakland?
The main point was to use the opportunity of President Obama’s visit as a way to draw attention to the disparity between Attorney General Eric Holder’s sworn testimony before Congress and what’s actually happening in California. The attorney general testified that the Department of Justice is taking enforcement actions only against individuals and organizations out of compliance with state law. Well, that clearly is not what’s going on here.
Melinda Haag hasn’t even accused Harborside of violating any state laws, is that correct?
Yes, that’s 100 percent accurate. In the complaint that was taped to our door, there is no allegation of any acts of wrongdoing on the part of Harborside Health Center whatsoever, except that we are selling cannabis in violation of federal law. There is no allegation that we’re too close to a school, or that we were laundering money, or that we were out of compliance with state law in any other way. In a subsequent statement, US Attorney Haag said that she targeted Harborside because we are the largest dispensary, and the largest dispensaries tend to result in more cannabis getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have it. That’s not true – but even if it were true, that’s still not a reason to target a specific organization like Harborside with a spotless track record of legal compliance. The whole reason that we’re the largest collective in California is because we provide the highest level of care possible. So to me, we’re being targeted because we’ve done too good a job!
Are they trying to remove the best and most reputable dispensaries so that they can’t be used as a positive example of medical cannabis distribution?
When the US Attorneys in California announced this enforcement campaign last October, they said they’d be targeting criminals and profiteers. But if you take a look at who they’ve actually gone after, it reads like an honor roll of the most legitimate and forward-thinking medical cannabis providers in the state of California – the ones who’ve created the most successful examples of a dispensary system.
Our system creates jobs, creates tax revenue, takes citizens out of contact with criminals, reduces the burden on law enforcement, and takes money away from the illicit underground. Their system destroys jobs and tax revenue, forces otherwise law-abiding citizens into contact with criminal organizations, increases the burden on law enforcement and requires huge expenditures of tax revenue – all while sending more and more money into the criminal underground. If Harborside were to be closed, $22 million of unregulated cannabis sales would be shifted to the streets of Oakland. And that’s the last thing this city needs right now.
Do you have a sense of whether the US Attorney in this case is acting in defiance of the policy articulated by the Obama administration and the attorney general, or if this is part of a coordinated strategy originating in Washington, DC?
We don’t have the answer to that question yet, unfortunately, but I’m working to get some answers. The one thing that we know for sure is that there’s just this incredible disparity between what Eric Holder told Congress and what’s happening on the ground in California.
The number one thing we need to do is to call for a freeze on all these enforcement actions nationwide until the highest levels of the DOJ can review them – not just the action against Harborside, but every enforcement action across the country. We should see if these enforcement actions are consistent with the attorney general’s statements to Congress, because they sure don’t appear to be.
Personally, I feel that this is a tipping point for our movement – it could tip either way. This is an opportunity for us to step forward, claim the momentum and stop this assault before it goes any further. But failing that, I think that we’re going to see seriously emboldened prosecutors across the country. So if Melinda Haag is successful at using the civil-forfeiture mechanism to close Harborside – with its model of legitimacy and all of its resources – then every prosecutor in the country is going to be able to do the same. It will be an incredibly inexpensive, very effective way for the Department of Justice to entirely close down safe access to patients across the United States. And so, to my viewpoint, we either stop this thing now or it’s going to have the potential to completely destroy safe access across the country in the not-too-distant future.
Will you be able to keep Harborside’s doors open pending the outcome of your legal challenge to the forfeiture action?
Our intention is to remain open pending the outcome of that trial. The only way we would envision that changing is if we were raided, which of course could happen at any moment. But we believe that there is a legal path to victory, and our intention is to use the court of public opinion to forestall the possibility of a raid while we pursue that legal case.
The good news is, I’ve been able to make more high-level political progress in the last two weeks than in the last three years put together, because people now recognize the urgency of this situation. So I think that we have the possibility of taking this threat and turning it into a triumph.
At the rally, you spoke about the “lost voices” of the patients. How would they be affected by a shutdown of the dispensaries?
When dispensaries are closed, the most vulnerable patients suffer the most – the ones least able to go out and find new sources of supply and negotiate the illicit market. If you have someone whose medical condition is not very extreme, who’s fairly young and moves in social circles where cannabis is common, it might not be a big problem for them to replace their source of medicine. But for a senior citizen, someone in a wheelchair, or someone with impaired vision or debilitating nausea, going out into the illicit marketplace is going to be an almost impossible challenge.
And we know that those patients are going to end up suffering – seriously suffering. Patients like Jayden David, the five-year-old featured on Weed Wars, who requires a very special custom formulation to control his epileptic seizures. It took Harborside working with a tincture specialist for several months to develop the alcohol-free, low-THC, CBD-rich medicine that’s been so effective at treating his epilepsy. You can’t find that kind of medicine out on the street. You also can’t find laboratory-tested medicine. So it’s those patients who are most at risk with health issues, who have the most to fear from contamination, who have the largest need for a pure, reliable and safe source of medicine, that are going to be hurt the most.
Also, at Harborside we have our holistic care clinic, which gives free acupuncture, chiropractic and alternative therapies to patients. And we provide a thousand patients with a free gram and a half of medicine every week. Those low-income patients depend on us so that they don’t go without their medicine.
Cannabis can be used to reduce or replace more harmful and dangerous prescription drugs, which is obviously a threat to the pharmaceutical industry’s bottom line. Do you think that’s a part of why this is happening?
When you think about pharmaceutical companies and cannabis, it’s kind of a complex picture, because there are a lot of different companies out there that may be looking at it in different kinds of ways. So yes, those who manufacture pharmaceuticals for pain control or anxiety or insomnia or for depression or spasticity are clearly going to view cannabis as a threat.
On the other hand, some more forward-thinking pharmaceutical companies will want to enter this market in the future. And there are patients who are going to need pharmaceutical cannabis preparations, where they pull out one or two or three cannabinoids and combine them into something new, or put them into a unique delivery format so you can get a really concentrated dose right to the site of a tumor, for example. I think there’s going to be a valuable role for those types of cannabis medicine down the road.
But I also believe that the vast majority of people will want to use non-pharmaceutical preparations. At Harborside, for example, we sell a sublingual spray that in all regards is almost identical to Sativex [a whole-plant cannabis extract manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals] – but we sell it at one-tenth of the price. How? Because we produce it to nutraceutical standards rather than pharmaceutical standards.
Clear statements coming from the Obama Administration and the Department of Justice certainly made it seem like compliance with state law was going to be the standard recognized by the federal government. Given the chance to go back and do things differently knowing what you do now, would you still pursue this?
If I had known six years ago the position that we would be in today, it wouldn’t make any difference in what I would have done. You don’t make forward motion without taking risks. Social movements for social justice require courage, and they require people to stand up in the face of injustice – and sometimes to make the sacrifice of being hurt in the process. If people weren’t willing to do that, we would still have segregation in this country; we wouldn’t have a 40-hour work-week and so many other things. Over the last six years, we’ve been able to build an incredible temple to cannabis – a place that really is worthy of this amazing plant – while showing the world that you can distribute cannabis in a way that brings benefits and not harm to communities.
That example, regardless of what happens next in the short term, is going to stand. And in the long term, I know that ultimately we’re on the right side of history. There’s no question in my mind that we’re going to win this struggle. There’s no doubt in my mind that when our grand-children read about what we’ve done, they’ll be proud. And you know, I can’t think of another mission that I would rather have in life; I can’t think of anything that would be more fulfilling than to tell the truth about this amazing plant and bring it to people who very desperately need it. So, no – I wouldn’t do anything differently.