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Court upholds local medical marijuana bans on dispensaries

California was the first of 18 states and D.C. to legalize medical marijuana, but localities there can continue to prohibit facilities from operating.

By — Posted June 3, 2013

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Officials in California cities and counties will continue to have the right to decide whether they want medical marijuana dispensaries to do business in their jurisdictions, under a ruling that could guide other state actions on cannabis.

In May, the Supreme Court of California unanimously ruled that local laws can regulate or prohibit the facilities, settling an issue that had seen conflicting opinions from the lower courts. About 200 California municipalities prohibit dispensaries, and about 50 regulate them.

The California Supreme Court said the state medical marijuana laws are “incremental steps toward freer access” to the substance and that the scope of the statutes are “limited and circumscribed.”

“They merely declare that the conduct they describe cannot lead to arrest or conviction, or be abated as a nuisance,” justices said in City of Riverside v Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center Inc. “Nothing … expressly or impliedly limits the inherent authority of a local jurisdiction, by its own ordinances, to regulate the use of its land, including the authority to provide that facilities for the distribution of medical marijuana will not be permitted to operate within its borders.”

Both sides saw the case as an important one for patients.

“The concern is for patient safety and public safety,” said Jeffrey V. Dunn, a partner at Best Best & Krieger in Irvine, Calif., who argued the case before the Supreme Court for the city of Riverside.

He said cities are choosing to ban dispensaries because the state has seen an increase in crime around existing facilities. There also is concern about the quality of the marijuana. For example, testing has found illegal and banned pesticides in some drug samples, Dunn said. Emergency departments also have reported cases of overdosing in young children, adults and seniors.

“If [marijuana] is really medicine, it needs to be treated as such and distributed in a safe, regulated manner,” Dunn said.

An attorney for Inland Empire did not return phone calls or emails, but others who oppose municipal bans said patients are the ones who will suffer.

“The unfortunate result of this decision is to leave many needy patients without legal access to medical marijuana in their communities, thereby promoting illegal black market suppliers,” said Dale Gieringer, PhD, coordinator for California NORML, which supports legalizing marijuana.

“While the California Supreme Court ruling ignores the needs of thousands of patients across the state, it simply maintains the status quo,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Riverside case, in a statement.

Other states are watching

Gieringer said it is time to create a safe and affordable system for all patients in medical need. California NORML supports bills before the Legislature that would create a regulatory system for medical marijuana distribution.

Dunn said the Supreme Court opinion has the potential to influence how other states address this issue. He has received calls from attorneys around the U.S. about the Riverside case.

“Typically, because California is such a large state, is on the cutting edge of social issues and has a more developed body of law, it is not unusual for other courts to look to what California did,” he said.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. With a bill on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk at this article’s deadline, Illinois was poised to become the 19th state to allow a patient with a physician’s order to possess and consume cannabis. The District of Columbia also allows it. Many jurisdictions regulate distribution more than California does, and Illinois is considering a system that would tightly regulate how the drug is grown and distributed to eligible patients.

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External links

City of Riverside v Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center Inc., et al., Supreme Court of California, May 6 (link)

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