California High Court Rules Cities Can Ban Pot Outlets

May 05, 2013

Erica Phillips, Wall Street Journal

The California Supreme Court on Monday said local governments can ban medical-marijuana dispensaries, settling a question that has confounded communities across the state.

The court found that nothing in the state's marijuana laws "limits the inherent authority of a local jurisdiction, by its own ordinances, to regulate the use of its land," such as the banning of pot shops, according to the written decision.

The ruling brought an outcry from medical-marijuana advocates, who said it ignores the needs of patients who require access to the drug.

The Venice Beach Care Center, a medical-pot dispensary in Los Angeles. Officials estimate there are as many as 1,000 such shops in the city.

But local-government officials said the decision helps clarify their authority to regulate such outlets, which many say are neighborhood nuisances.

California voters legalized marijuana for medical purposes 16 years ago. It is still illegal under federal law.

As medical-marijuana shops proliferated across the state, conflicting federal and state law on the issue created a chaotic situation. Some cities allowed shops to operate under certain regulations—such as operating away from schools—while others have enacted outright bans. Still other local governments, including the Los Angeles City Council, have struggled repeatedly to agree upon a broad set of regulations.

Monday's ruling lays down long-awaited clarification on whether cities can ban the dispensaries outright.

The decision stemmed from a complaint filed by the city of Riverside, located in the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles, against the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, Inc. The city attempted to shut down the marijuana dispensary, citing local zoning laws that prohibit the facilities.


For the first time in more than four decades, a majority of Americans support legalizing the use of marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center. Alan Murray, Pew Research Center president, joins The News Hub. Photo: Getty Images.

The dispensary argued that local bans conflict with California state law, under which medical marijuana is legal. J. David Nick, who represented the Inland Empire dispensary before the State Supreme Court, said he was "dismayed" by the decision. "The court opted for chaos rather than a regulated system," he said.

Jeffrey Dunn, a lawyer for Riverside, said the decision gives local governments "the authority to protect public safety" and "reduce the risk of abuse and all the negative secondary impacts that are associated with selling marijuana."

He added that California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, could serve as a model for other states facing similar jurisdiction questions.

Americans for Safe Access, a nationwide medical-marijuana advocacy group, said it would focus on working with the state legislature to establish clear rules for dispensaries.

"The ball is in the legislature's court to establish statewide regulations that both meet the needs of patients and keep communities safe," said Don Duncan, the group's policy director for California.

A 1996 voter-backed initiative allows people with a doctor's recommendation to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons in California, but the law made no mention of dispensaries.

The number of shops, many of them unregulated by local laws, has grown in recent years. So far, 20 counties and nearly 200 cities in California have banned pot shops, according to Americans for Safe Access.

Meanwhile, three different proposals to regulate the dispensaries in Los Angeles are on the May 21 mayoral ballot. City officials estimate there are as many as 1,000 such shops in the city.

Monday's court decision could embolden the city council to take action to regulate the shops, said Brad Hertz, a lawyer for Proposition D, which would tax dispensaries in L.A. as well as limit their location and numbers.

The city council voted to ban pot shops last summer but quickly reversed that decision after a public outcry.

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