Large Calif. Pot Dispensary Threatened With Closure

There's an escalation of the battle between the government and California's medical marijuana providers. The U.S. Attorney in San Francisco has moved to close California's largest medical pot dispensary because it's too big and too profitable.

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Now to an escalating battle between the Obama administration and California's providers of medical marijuana. Last week, the government filed a legal action threatening to seize the state's largest dispensary if it doesn't shut down voluntarily.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales has that story.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At first glance, the Harborside Health Center in Oakland certainly suggests health. The main room is clean, quiet, spacious and bathed in natural light.

MATT SMITH: On a busy day we can see up to 900 or a thousand people. That's a really busy day for us.

GONZALES: Matt Smith is one of Harborside's 125 employees. He shows off a long glass display case filled with many varieties of marijuana.

SMITH: On this side is our sativas and on this side is indicas. Sativa is more like an active, upbeat kind of a feeling, more of a mental high. Indica stuff is going to be more of a body feel. This is what a lot of people use for pain, nerve pain, helping you sleep kind of stuff.

GONZALES: Every small bowl of marijuana has a name. Purple Train Wreck, Dream Queen, Blackberry Cush. They are color-coded for price and percentage of the active ingredient, THC.

Harborside earned $22 million last year. It paid more than a million dollars in local taxes to the city of Oakland and another 2 million in California state taxes.

STEVE D'ANGELO: We have over 100,000 patients who depend on us for a level of care that's really not available in the rest of the state.

GONZALES: That's Steve D'Angelo, Harborside's executive director. He says he operates legally under California's Medical Marijuana Law, which says an ill patient or provider can possess or cultivate marijuana. He's also attracted a measure of fame by being featured recently in a reality TV series on the Discovery Channel called "Weed Wars."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "WEED WARS")

D'ANGELO: I've dedicated my entire adult life to the cannabis plant. And, today, my family and I run the largest cannabis dispensary on the entire planet.

GONZALES: And D'Angelo says Harborside is the gold standard of legitimate medical cannabis distribution, but U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag doesn't buy that claim of legitimacy. She filed a lawsuit to shutter Harborside's operations in Oakland and in San Jose.

Haag declined to comment for this report, but in an interview earlier this year with member station KQED, she sent a warning.

MELINDA HAAG: Marijuana's illegal under federal law and there are many things I could do as a result of that. I could bring a criminal action. I can bring a forfeiture action or both.

GONZALES: Late last year, Haag and three other U.S. attorneys in California announced a crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries. And, at the time, Haag suggested she would focus on shops within 1,000 feet of any school. But Harborside isn't close to a school.

In a written statement, Haag said she targeted Harborside for its size and scale.

HAAG: A marijuana industry is not off limits. And, if we have significant grow operations, if we have for-profit operations, certainly if those operations are having other impacts, negative impacts on their communities, that it isn't something that we're able to ignore.

GONZALES: The crackdown on Harborside follows federal raids in April on the home and dispensary of high profile medical marijuana entrepreneur, Richard Lee in Oakland. The feds have also shut down dispensaries in Berkeley, Sacramento and the affluent Marin County, north of San Francisco.

At the heart of this conflict is an ambiguous state law that appears to allow medical cannabis dispensaries and the federal law that bans marijuana entirely. And, for now, the feds have the upper hand.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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