marijuana

In this file photo, outside a marijuana dispensary on North Chester Avenue, a woman displays her newly purchased cannabis.

A confederation of local cannabis dispensaries has sued Kern County in federal court, alleging its ban on medical marijuana shops violates the group's constitutional rights.

The lawsuit alleges the county’s enforcement of the ban violates the 14th Amendment, which gives citizens the right to due process.

“(The) Kern County board of supervisors are (sic) using department heads to commit unlawful closures and seizure of property at gunpoint without due process of law or equal protection under the law,” said Attorney Abraham Labbad, who said he is representing 10 Kern County dispensaries.

He added that three dispensaries he represents were denied due process when the county shut them down.

Labbad is seeking upward of $60 million in real damages.

The seven other dispensaries involved in the lawsuit, all anonymous, are identified only as Citizens Against Corruption. They are still in business, Labbad said, and they fear retribution or taking action against the county.

Filed in U.S. District Court Eastern District Jan. 24, the lawsuit names all five county supervisors along with several department heads and attorneys, as well as 1,000 unnamed people who the litigants claim are in some way involved in the lawsuit but could not be identified.

If the lawsuit is successful some dispensaries that were shut down by the county could potentially reopen.

The county has been served notice of the lawsuit and is in the process of reviewing it, said County Counsel Margot Raison. She said she could not comment further until the county has ad a chance to read the complaint fully.

Although consumption of marijuana remains legal, county supervisors banned sales of the drug in late 2017. The ban went into effect at the beginning of 2018.

A select group of 29 medical marijuana dispensaries was allowed to remain open with temporary permits granted by the Planning Department.

Dispensaries that were granted the permits became known as “legal non-conforming” dispensaries and were entered onto a list maintained by the county.

That list has been hotly debated ever since, with allegations of favoritism raised as some dispensaries were taken off the list and others added.

The Planning Department, which oversees the ban, comes under heavy fire in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the Planning Department arbitrarily placed dispensaries on the legal non-conforming list based on the whims of Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt and her staff.

“If a dispensary owner is ‘liked’ by the Planning Director, their shop will not be raided and will remain open,” the lawsuit states. “However, if the opposite is true, then the business will no longer be in business, the owners and operators will be arrested and assets will be confiscated and forfeited.

Oviatt said the county does not generally discuss pending litigation, but she did offer one comment.

“There’s no foundation for the allegations in this lawsuit,” she said.

The lawsuit also states that the county targeted people of non-Caucasian backgrounds when it raided dispensary businesses. Several of the litigants are of either Middle Eastern or Mexican heritage, and Labbad, who has represented dispensaries in Kern County before, is from the Middle East, according to court documents.

The parties sued have 21 days to respond to the lawsuit.

It is set for an initial scheduling conference April 25.

“We think we have a clear winner,” said David Abbasi, one of the dispensary owners involved in the lawsuit. “We’re mobilized, we’ve filed, and now we’re doing the follow-up work.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415 or smorgen@bakersfield.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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