By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A medical marijuana dispensary billed as the world's largest cannabis store may stay open while the city of Oakland fights a U.S. government effort to shut it down or seize the property, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.
There has been a tug-of-war in California between federal and local authorities over cannabis sold for purported health reasons.
In February, Magistrate Maria-Elena James, the same judge who ruled on Wednesday, said the city had no right to intervene in a federal prosecutor's civil-forfeiture action against the Harborside Health Center, which was featured on the Discovery Channel reality TV show "Weed Wars."
The city appealed the ruling, and James's latest order allows the dispensary to continue to sell marijuana to individuals carrying a doctor's recommendation while the appeal is under review. James called the question of Oakland's legal standing in the case "a matter of significant public interest."
Attorney Cedric Chao, who is representing the city in the case, called the ruling "very significant."
"The court has recognized that Oakland has legitimate interests in protecting its residents' health, in promoting public safety, and in protecting the integrity of its legislative framework for the regulation of medical cannabis," Chao said.
"Today's order, coming right before the July Fourth holiday, reminds us all that one of the strengths of our country is its independent judiciary."
Harborside's landlords have moved to evict the store under pressure from federal prosecutors, who have threatened to seize the property as part of a U.S. government crackdown on what it deems to be illegal pot shops in California.
The city of Oakland in October sued the federal government in an effort to allow Harborside to continue selling marijuana to its 100,000 patients. Oakland officials warned that a shutdown would lead to a "health crisis."
The city expects to collect $1.4 million in medical-pot sales tax revenue this year.
A representative for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco was not immediately available for comment.
Federal authorities in recent years have launched a crackdown in California and other states against what prosecutors consider an illegal network of cannabis suppliers established under state medical marijuana laws.
California was the first to legalize pot for medical purposes, and nearly 20 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar statutes, though marijuana is classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Toni Reinhold)