Legislative action next step for pro-marijuana advocates
May 09, 2013
Sandra Emerson and Wes Woods II, Daily BulletinThe state Supreme Court's decision upholding local governments' right to ban medical marijuana dispensaries left pro-marijuana advocates to rely on legislative action to ensure patients access to marijuana.
Although the court recognized the legality of medicinal marijuana use, they did uphold the constitutional rights of the nearly 200 cities and counties throughout the state to ban dispensaries.
"I think the take-home from the court's decision wasn't a big surprise, it just really underscored the need of the state to step up and provide comprehensive regulations which is in everybody's interest," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney with Drug Policy Alliance's legal affairs office in Berkeley. "The patients need access. Law enforcement needs clarity, and localities need help in regulating. "
The decision written by Justice Marvin R. Baxter, concluded by saying, "Of course nothing prevents future efforts by the Legislature, or by the people, to adopt a different approach. In the meantime however, we must conclude that Riverside's ordinances are not preempted by state law. "
The decision was made in the case involving the city of Riverside and medical marijuana dispensary Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, which questioned the city's ordinance banning dispensaries. Although the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 decriminalizes the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, it did not set up a legal system for distributing medical marijuana.
The Medical Marijuana Program, approved by the state Legislature in 2004, established a medical marijuana identification card program, but does not require municipalities to allow dispensaries for patient access.
Lanny Swerdlow, founder of Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, which has closed, is now working with the Brownie Mary Democratic Club of Riverside - the first political party affiliated cannabis club in the state, according to the club's website.
"The name of the game is paying off politicians," Swerdlow said. "Either with time, volunteering or money. We're going to have to join that game or be on the short end of the stick. "
Swerdlow also plans to work with Americans for Safe Access and legislators trying to enact legislation, such as Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has authored a bill that would create a regulatory agency under the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. It would establish statewide standards for cultivation, testing, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and sales of medical marijuana and medical cannabis products.
The bill does not address the abilities of cities and counties to ban dispensaries, but the assemblyman's hope is the reassurance that dispensaries can operate safely, legally and without threat to public safety.
The intent is also to show the federal government that it is not necessary for them to crack down on well-regulated and non-criminal enterprises, according to a spokesman for Ammiano.
"It is Mr. Ammiano's hope that by doing this he can take away a great deal of the anxiety that some of the jurisdictions feel with respect to allowing medical marijuana dispensaries," said Carlos Alcala, communications director in Ammiano's office. The bill has made it through its first committee.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has a bill in front of the Senate that would protect operators of medical marijuana dispensaries that meet security standards set by the state attorney general from being prosecuted for marijuana possession or sales.
Scott Chipman, co-chair for Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana in Southern California, said his group will continue to push back against pro-marijuana groups attempting to get marijuana legalized for recreational use.
"We know that there are many people in California that are addicted both chemically and financially to marijuana," he said. "We're going to continue our efforts to keep marijuana illegal and to convince the citizens of California, marijuana is harmful and should not be legalized. "
Chipman said he does expect pro-marijuana groups to push for legislation and legalization despite the Supreme Court's decision.
"Is this issue over? No," he said. "I think we're just right in the middle. This decision marks a turning point because over 90 percent of the cities and counties in California have already passed or are prohibiting dispensaries. "
Chipman said he does not believe localities will reverse their bans because they have seen the impact dispensaries have on the community.
"So they all think and see what they are and how they operate and made the decision they're a public nuisance and health hazard risk for public safety and the health and welfare of citizens of their cities and counties," he said.
Jack Pitney, a politics and government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said the real solution would have to come at the federal level.
"Whatever else California does, possession is still a federal crime. And as long as it's a federal crime its legal status is questionable," Pitney said.
Pitney said medical marijuana legalization on the federal scale would be unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"This administration seems to put less emphasis on prosecution, but that could change with another attorney general or another president, so the settlement of the issue involves federal government, not states or localities," he said.