Oakland City Attorney John Russo has delivered another blow to the city's plans to tax and license large-scale cannabis farms: He's withdrawn his legal advice and told the City Council to hire their own attorney.
Russo's letter, dated Thursday and addressed to the mayor and each council member, cited California rule 3-700 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct, which defines the rules under which an attorney may terminate a client.
In the letter he advises the council to retain outside counsel for the duration of the deliberations on the medical cannabis cultivation issue. He says that once an attorney has been secured, his office will turn over the files amassed so far.
Russo says in the letter that he based his decision on action taken by the City Council on Tuesday to redraft its proposed medical cannabis cultivation ordinance to address concerns raised by federal and local law enforcement officials.
Oakland's original cannabis cultivation ordinance set no limits on the size of the cultivation facilities, which would operate as stand-alone businesses separate from dispensaries. The council had hoped to start licensing the farms as early as last month, but it instead suspended action on the licenses in December so the ordinance could be revised to more closely comply with state law as it pertains to medical cannabis.
Councilmember Desley Brooks (Eastmont-Seminary), proposed an amendment at the Tuesday council meeting that would limit the size of cultivation facilities and require that each one operate an on-site dispensary to ensure a direct, accountable link between the product and the patient.
Brooks' new draft of the ordinance, as well as an alternative proposal that was supposed to be drafted by Russo's office this week, were scheduled for discussion at next Tuesday's Public Safety meeting. But Russo's letter has thrown a monkey wrench into the schedule.
Not only is there no draft of the ordinance from his office, no one from the City Attorney's office can advise the committee on the legality of its action. Russo's office declined to comment on the letter Friday.
Russo did not specify which particular section of Rule 3-700 he was using, but section C (1) states that an attorney may withdraw legal representation if "the client seeks to pursue an illegal course of conduct."
Both U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley warned that Oakland's cultivation ordinance as originally drafted would be illegal and invite state and federal prosecution.
Brooks said late Friday that she agrees the initial ordinance is illegal and that's why she rewrote it to make sure there is a closed loop system between growers and patients.
She said she did not know whether the council would be able to hire a new attorney by next week's meeting, and she thought it odd that Russo would issue his letter Thursday, when his staff was working on a draft of the ordinance as recently as Tuesday.
"As far as Tuesday's meeting, I just want to make sure we are proceeding cautiously," Brooks said. "Nobody is trying to run out and do anything that will get the city in trouble. We're trying to be thoughtful, unfortunately, the City Attorney's Office is not working with us, and seems to be working against us. This is the latest ploy in that regard."
Councilmember Jane Brunner (North Oakland), said late Friday that per the City Charter, Russo has an obligation to the council as his client.
"As Russo's clients, I think it's appropriate to have a discussion regarding the legality of cultivation, not publicly, but in closed session," Brunner said, adding that if the council is forced to seek outside counsel, the money should come from Russo's budget.