Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Why Is This US Attorney So Gung-Ho on Prosecuting a Respected Medical-Pot Dispensary?

Despite pleas from Northern Cali's congressional delegation, Melinda Haag won't leave Harborside alone.

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 5:29 PM EST
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.

Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.

"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.

In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.

The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.

Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.

"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."

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The Surgeon General Is Finally Coming Around on Pot

Medical marijuana "can be helpful," says the nation's top doctor.

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 3:36 PM EST

Despite the legalization of medical marijuana in 30 states, the federal government still lists cannabis under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." But today, the nation's new top doctor appeared to challenge that designation.

"We have some preliminary data showing that for some medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CBS This Morning. "So I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I'm very interested to see where that data takes us."

Here's the full interview (Murthy's comments on medical marijuana start at 3:48):

No Money Left Behind: Education Entrepreneur Cashes in on Bush Family Ties

Randy Best has made millions with a little help from George W. and Jeb Bush.

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 2:12 PM EST
Jeb Bush with Randy Best.

In this week's New Yorker, Alec MacGillis discusses Jeb Bush's approach to education reform, the realm in which Bush, as Florida's governor, had sought to make his biggest mark. In 1995, his efforts to improve the state's public schools catalyzed his political career and, later, fueled competition with his brother George, who as president rolled out the No Child Left Behind Act:

Jeb Bush made it known that he thought his own approach superior, because it sought to grade schools on improvements in individual students' scores, rather than just on schools' performance in a given year. "There were lots of conversations about the work in Texas and how Florida had improved on that," [school superintendent Jim] Warford said. According to education officials, Jeb's team had little respect for Rod Paige, the former Houston schools superintendent whom George W. Bush had named Secretary of Education. "It was a little prickly in Florida," Sandy Kress, who worked on the implementation of No Child Left Behind, said. "It was 'We're going to do it our way and can do it better.'"

Their sibling rivalry notwithstanding, the Bush bros have common ties to one particularly controversial educational entrepreneur. Starting in the late 1990s, Randy Best, whom I profiled at the end of George W. Bush's second term, used his connections to the president to transform a virtually unknown for-profit education company, Voyager, into a "selling juggernaut" (in his words) that he unloaded in 2005 for $360 million.

Randy Best Steve Brodner

The key to Voyager's success was the way it it used revolving doors in Bush's Education Department to game the procurement process. Its dealings prompted a scathing DOE inspector general's report in 2006 and a harshly worded Senate report the following year. "Many programs, including Voyager, were probably adopted on the basis of relationships, rather than effectiveness data," G. Reid Lyon, who co-wrote the No Child Left Behind Act and later consulted for Best, told me in 2008. "I thought all this money would be great; it would get into schools. But money makes barracudas out of people. It's an amazing thing."

The controversy surrounding Voyager didn't dissuade Best from starting another education company. Founded in 2005, Academic Partnerships persuades colleges to outsource to the firm their degree programs in subjects such as business and education, which it puts online in exchange for a hefty chunk of the profits. Nor did Voyager dissuade Jeb Bush from partnering with Best. Here's MacGillis:

Best needed someone to lend credibility to the company. Florida had spent heavily on Voyager during Jeb Bush's governorship, and, in 2005, when Bush was still in office, Best spoke with him about going into the education business. By 2011, Bush had joined Academic Partnerships as an investor and an adviser, and he became the company's highest-profile champion. Best told the Washington Post that Bush's annual salary was sixty thousand dollars, but he did not disclose the terms of Bush's investment stake. For the first time, Bush was making money in an educational enterprise.

Last month, after announcing his intent to run for president, Bush resigned from Academic Partnerships and several other business affiliations. Yet if Bush's family history is any guide, Randy Best 2.0 is just getting started.

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