After High Court punts, pot regs back on table: Supreme Court decision vacates controversial ruling
August 22, 2012
Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel
The state Supreme Court backed off ruling on a closely watched medical marijuana case Wednesday, saying the case was now moot.
The move could clear the way for lifting a county moratorium on new pot clubs, after the case led the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to suspend local dispensary rules. That left local providers in limbo amid a broad federal crackdown and a growing number of California governments banning pot clubs altogether.
"It's terrific news," said Ben Rice, a local attorney who represents several local dispensaries. "Everybody's real hopeful that the county's going to engage all these folks again in regulating medical marijuana in the county."
While the court declined to hear the much-anticipated case, the effect is as good as a win for medical marijuana advocates. Under Supreme Court rules, the disputed appeals court ruling no longer has legal force.
The case began when the city of Long Beach passed regulatory rules demanding a steep payment from operators for the chance to enter a lottery allowing them to open their doors in city limits.
Dispensary operators sued, arguing that local governments had no business regulating an area governed by federal drug laws, and a state appeals panel agreed. But rather than simply toss the regulatory scheme, the judges cited federal law and blocked any local regulations, even going so far to suggest local officials could be prosecuted for passing them.
The clubs' risky legal strategy had backfired, and they dropped it after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Pack v. City of Long Beach. Long Beach also later joined scores of California cities in lowering a total ban on dispensaries, making the case moot.
In the meantime, the ruling seemed to contribute to a trend of pot club prohibitions that came despite broad public support for Prop 215, the ground-breaking 1996 medical marijuana law that has since been adapted to 16 states.
In California, 20 counties and at least 179 cities - including Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the U.S. - now ban dispensaries, according to the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
"A lot of cities used the Pack decision as cover to ban everything, outright," said H. Allen Hopper, criminal justice and policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California chapter, who filed a joint brief in the case on behalf of Santa Cruz County and San Francisco.
County Counsel Dana McRae said she expects to return to the Board of Supervisors with an update on the case, which could include a discussion of the county's moratorium on new dispensaries.
Passed in May 2011, the original county regulations were welcomed by local operators, setting business operations standards and location restrictions. Board of Supervisors Chair John Leopold, who helped author the law, said it was too early to say what the county might do next.
All eyes now turn to another potential Supreme Court ruling on a ban on dispensaries in Riverside, in a case involving a collective called the Inland Empire Patient's Health and Wellness Center. Advocates hope to prohibit bans, citing Prop 215.
"We're back now to the same legal landscape that existed before the Pack appellate court decision. Counties are free to regulate, and whether or not they can completely ban is a very uncertain proposition given the Supreme Court review pending in the Riverside case," Hopper said.
Kris Hermes, a spokesman for American for Safe Access, agreed the medical marijuana industry is watching the Riverside case. But he added that he hoped the state Legislature would take up the matter as well.
"We're not necessarily waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on this issue. We're also hoping the Legislature will adopt sensible regulations," Hermes said.