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Oakland sues U.S. government to defend pot dispensary in city

(Reuters) - The city of Oakland has sued to block U.S. authorities from closing down a prominent medical marijuana dispensary that is featured on a reality television show, escalating a long-running conflict with the federal government over pot.

The lawsuit by Oakland's city attorney asks a federal judge to declare as unlawful federal government attempts to close down Harborside Health Center (http://www.harborsidehealthcenter.com/), which is featured in the Discovery Channel reality show "Weed Wars."

The action, filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, follows a forfeiture action against the property where the dispensary is situated that was filed in July by the U.S. Attorney's office, officials said.

"This lawsuit is about protecting the rights of legitimate medical patients," Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement.

"I am deeply dismayed that the federal government would seek to deny these rights and deprive thousands of seriously ill Californians of access to safe, affordable and effective medicine," she said.

The dispute marks the latest clash between the federal government, which holds that pot is an illegal drug, and local officials in California, where voters in 1996 made the state the first in the nation to allow cannabis as medicine. A total of 17 states now allow it, including Colorado, Oregon and Washington state.

Oakland officials are not seeking damages in the lawsuit, which names as defendants Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for the district, and Attorney General Eric Holder. A representative for Haag could not be reached for comment.

Oakland officials in the past have been openly critical of tough federal action against medical marijuana operations, but the filing of a lawsuit represents the city's most confrontational stance to date.

Medical marijuana dispensaries -- which sometimes offer massages and other non-medical services, though some only dispense marijuana -- are issued permits by the city of Oakland, perhaps California's most tolerant municipality when it comes to medical pot. In 2010, the city adopted plans to regulate large-scale cannabis farms, then backed off under threat from the federal government.

The city's lawsuit against the federal government is not completely unprecedented. About a decade ago, the city and county of Santa Cruz in northern California along with a local medical marijuana collective sued the federal government after a raid of that collective, said Tamar Todd, a senior staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and M.D. Golan)

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