BERKELEY -- The city filed a legal claim Wednesday in a federal asset forfeiture case against the landlord of a medical marijuana dispensary here, saying it would lose tax money from pot sales if it is forced to close.
The Berkeley City Council voted in closed session in June to file the claim and has taken the unusual step of farming the legal work out at no cost to the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, a national group working to reform drug laws.
Also on Wednesday a federal judge put all proceedings on hold in a similar federal asset forfeiture lawsuit against the landlord of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, the nations largest medical marijuana outlet.
In that case, a judge said the federal government's case against Harborside cannot proceed until an appeals court decides the validity of a counter lawsuit brought by the city of Oakland challenging the government action.
Drug Policy Alliance Attorney Tamar Todd said Berkeley's action is unlike Oakland's because it is making a claim within the federal government's lawsuit, while Oakland filed an entirely separate suit.
Todd said the Drug Policy Alliance is filing the case on behalf of Berkeley free of charge because it is in line with its nonprofit's mission to fight the "status-quo war on drugs."
The Berkeley claim, in addition to saying the city will lose tax money, says the government action interferes with the city's plan to regulate and control medical marijuana and that if Berkeley Patients Group is shut down, it will lead to an increase in the number of unregulated medical marijuana outlets.
"The unfortunate thing is the federal government is not going after illicit drug sales," said Todd, who lives near Berkeley Patients Group and whose children attend two schools nearby. "They are going after an organization that provides a positive service where people can go and get quality medical marijuana, and they pay taxes."
Berkeley's three medical marijuana dispensaries, of which Berkeley Patients Group generates over 15 times the taxes of the other two, paid the city a total of $479,000 in taxes on sales of over $19 million through the fiscal year ending June 30. The city is projecting $720,000 in taxes on sales of about $29 million in the coming year, according to a City Council report.
Todd said the claim on behalf of the city touches her in a personal way.
"My kids go to schools near Berkeley Patients Group," Todd said. "As a parent, I'd rather have people going to Berkeley Patients Group and buying rather than having people selling it on the streets in the neighborhood."
Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan said the move to allow the Drug Policy Alliance to handle the claim on behalf of the city was the first time it allowed a nonprofit to represent it in court and have it done free of charge. He said he has no way of knowing how much money the city will save.
"We could have done it in house, but there were a number of people who volunteered, and some wanted money," Cowan said. "So we picked."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley and the Oakland school district. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him on Twitter @douglasoakley.