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Feds target $20 million 'Weed Wars' medical marijuana dispensary in Calif.

Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images, file

Harborside Health Center founder and executive director Steve DeAngelo, and Harborside Health Center co-founder David Weddingdress speak at a panel discussion in July 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. Harborside says it is the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world, serving more than 100,000 patients in a "beautiful waterfront location."

SAN FRANCISCO -- Federal prosecutors have filed civil forfeiture actions against an Oakland medical marijuana dispensary that bills itself as the world's largest, as part of a crackdown by U.S. authorities on California's massive cannabis trade.

The lawsuits, filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seek forfeiture of two properties where Harborside Health Center operates, said Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California.


The action against Harborside is the latest in a crackdown on 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.

The possession or sale of marijuana is illegal under federal law, which does not have an exemption for medical purposes.

Harborside says it is the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world, serving more than 100,000 patients in a "beautiful waterfront location," and is subject of the Discovery Channel reality TV show "Weed Wars."

"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 on Wednesday announcing the actions.

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"The filing of the civil forfeiture complaints against the two Harborside properties is part of our measured effort to address the proliferation of illegal marijuana businesses in the Northern District of California," she said.

Ben Margot / AP, file

Dani Geen holds 'care packages' of medical marijuana at the Harborside Health Center in a 2010 file photo.

Dispensary vows to contest action
In a statement on its website, the clinic said, "Harborside has nothing to be ashamed of, and will contest the Federal actions openly and publicly, with every legal means at our disposal."

"We look forward to our day in court, and are confident that justice is on our side. Come what may, we shall continue to care for our patients unless we are physically prevented from doing so," the statement said.

"People are not going to stop using cannabis, they're just going to buy it in the illegal marketplace … on the streets," Harborsider co-founder and marijuana activist Steve DeAngelo told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.

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"Why are federal prosecutors using their discretion to do something so profoundly destructive?" he asked, according to the newspaper.

Harborside also announced a news conference for Thursday morning to respond to the "federal attack," saying that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and other city, state and union officials would attend.

Federal crackdown
The federal crackdown has angered medical marijuana activists.

"This is the most obvious and significant step by the federal government in attacking completely law-abiding dispensaries," the Los Angeles Times quoted Kris Hermes, spokesman for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, as saying. "It becomes more untenable for them to say they are just going after certain facilities and not just undermining the state's marijuana laws."

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The drive by federal prosecutors to shut down dispensaries has caused friction between the U.S. government and California, which in 1996 became the first state to decriminalize medical marijuana. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have followed suit.

Harborside serves about 100,000 medical marijuana users a year, sells about $20 million worth of pot and marijuana products, and pays $3 million in federal, state and local taxes annually.

Dispensaries deliver between $58 million to $105 million in annual sales tax to California state coffers, according to state Board of Equalization figures cited in the Los Angeles Times.

Earlier this year, federal prosecutors and the Internal Revenue Service raided Oaksterdam University, a medical marijuana trade school in Oakland, and forced its founder to step aside.

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris, in a November interview with The New York Times, said the federal campaign had "only increased uncertainty about how Californians can legitimately comply with state law."

Harris also said federal authorities were "ill equipped to be the decision makers as to which providers are violating the law."

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.

Reuters, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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