By Ronnie Cohen
OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - Officials in the city of Oakland rebuked federal prosecutors on Thursday for seeking to shut down a medical marijuana dispensary that bills itself as the world's largest in the latest clash over a federal cannabis crackdown in Western U.S. states.
The criticism came a day after federal prosecutors announced lawsuits seeking to seize two properties housing the Harborside Health Center, a California cannabis dispensary that gained attention when it was featured on the reality TV show "Weed Wars."
"I am deeply dismayed that the federal government would seek to deprive Californians of this vital medicine," Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement released by her office and read at a news conference held at City Hall by Harborside's owners.
"These actions will force patients into the underground market of street corners and back alleys, undermining public safety and endangering their health and lives," Parker said.
The move against Harborside is the latest to target what federal prosecutors say is a flourishing network of illegal cannabis suppliers operating across California under the cover of the state's medical marijuana law. Pot operations in several other Western states have also been in the federal cross-hairs.
The crackdown comes amid a growing chasm between the way many states and the federal government treat marijuana, which is allowed for medicinal use in 17 states and the District of Columbia even as the federal government continues to class it as an illegal narcotic.
No state has legalized pot for recreational use. But voters in Washington, Colorado, and possibly Oregon, will be asked to decide on that question in November at the polls - potentially setting the stage for a bigger clash with the federal government.
'STOP HARASSING DISPENSARIES'
California, which in 1996 became the first state to decriminalize medical marijuana, rejected an initiative to legalize possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in 2010.
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag, in announcing the civil forfeiture actions on Wednesday, called them part of her office's "measured effort to address the proliferation of marijuana businesses" in her district.
"The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana laws and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need," Haag said in a statement.
A spokesman for Haag declined to respond to the criticism by local officials. Federal prosecutors say the dispensaries operate outside of California law, which permits only primary caregivers to dispense marijuana and bans sale of the drug for profit.
Parker, in criticizing the crackdown, also called on the U.S. government to devote its resources to fighting violent crime in Oakland, which she said was "snuffing out" lives.
"In the midst of this crisis, it is a tragic waste for the federal government to spend its time and money cracking down on legitimate health care providers," Parker said.
In a separate statement, State Board of Equalization member Betty Yee said medical marijuana dispensaries contributed some $100 million in sales tax revenue to the state yearly.
"It is time for the federal government, at the highest level, to put a stop to harassing legitimate dispensaries such as Harborside," Yee said.
Harborside attorney Henry Wykowski told Reuters he was still designing a legal strategy for responding to the forfeiture action. The first court date is scheduled for October, he said.
"There is no reason to knock down our door," he said. "We are proud of what we do, and we do it openly."
(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)