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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mission Marijuana Club Beats Feds, Will Stay Open

Posted By on Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 8:22 AM

click to enlarge These guys just beat Obama's people. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner
  • These guys just beat Obama's people.
A marijuana club fought the law. And for the first time weed won.

Shambhala Healing Center, a city-permitted cannabis dispensary in the Mission District, survived the federal Justice Department's effort to shut it down.

A judge this week tossed out a forfeiture suit filed by the local U.S. Attorney against the dispensary, Courthouse News first reported, ending a two-and-a-half-year legal odyssey for Shambhala – and, maybe, ending the feds’ crackdown on local legal weed.

Since fall of 2011, eight California law-abiding marijuana dispensaries shut down in San Francisco under pressure from U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who warned of asset forfeitures or stiff prison sentences for “pot shops” staying open. Hundreds more shut down around the state under similar pressure.

Shambhala defied the feds and fought – the only club in San Francisco to do so – and in the interim, no other local dispensaries have been targeted for closure.

Weed just may have won the war. 

With marijuana legalization supposedly a fait accompli in California in 2016, it's easy to forget what dire straits the industry was in during 2011. That was when Haag first started mailing letters to dispensaries’ landlords, citing the “pot shops’” proximity to schools and playgrounds.

About one-third of the city’s dispensaries shut down. The ones that remained laid low, pulling advertising, reducing activism, and otherwise doing as little as possible to advance the cause.

Haag also targeted the Bay Area’s biggest and most vocal marijuana dispensaries: Berkeley Patients’ Group, the state’s oldest dispensary, and Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, which is by reputation the state’s largest (and one of Oakland’s biggest taxpayers).

In San Francisco, Shambhala briefly complied with the feds’ directive, closing up shop in 2012. The dispensary reopened about six months later, after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana at the polls that fall. That pissed-off the feds who responded by suing to seize the building the following spring.

Here’s how Shambhala won: The dispensary’s landlords had no legal means to remove their weed-dealing tenant.

Shambhala had a valid lease, and since medical marijuana is legal in California, the landlords' attempt to evict the dispensary was rejected by a San Francisco Superior Court judge.

The feds could have gone ahead and seized the building, but such a draconian move would have been vastly unpopular. And in this game of chicken, it was the feds who blinked.

This spring, Justice Department prosecutors ended up accepting an $150,000 settlement from the landlords in lieu of seizing the building.

That seemed to settle the matter, until prosecutors tried at the eleventh hour to add Shambhala’s lease to the forfeiture action this fall. It was that move that a judge this week rejected, ending the saga, with Shambhala still in business.

Henry Wykowski, a former federal prosecutor who served as Shambhala’s attorney – and is also representing Harborside and BPG – said that the settlement hopefully represents an armistice in the U.S. government’s war on legal weed.

“The value of being able to obtain legal cannabis has been established,” he said Tuesday. “It’s good for the industry that this case has been dismissed, and I hope that the U.S. attorney does not file any new actions against any dispensaries that are in compliance with California law.”

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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