Medical Marijuana Patients Missing from California Supreme Court Oral Arguments

February 06, 2013 | Kris Hermes
In a highly-publicized and widely-watched medical marijuana case, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on whether municipalities should be able to ban local medical marijuana distribution, an activity deemed legal under state law. For all of the controversy and strenuous arguments made on both sides of the issue, those who stand the most to lose -- medical marijuana patients themselves -- were completely ignored.

In the case City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, the abstract but quantifiable impact of dispensary bans is that tens of thousands of patients are left without safe and legal access to their medication, mainly as a result of hostile or reluctant local officials. Today, more than 50 localities in California have adopted ordinances regulating the lawful distribution of medical marijuana, while more than 200 of the state’s cities and counties have banned dispensaries outright. For the past 7 years, city councils and county boards of supervisors have passed bans with complete disregard to the impact on their most vulnerable residents.

From a practical standpoint, patients who live in cities where dispensary bans exist and who cannot grow it themselves or find someone to grow it for them are stuck with an unfortunate dilemma: how to obtain a medication that is legal under state law. Every time a dispensary ban is unreasonably and arguably illegally imposed, hundreds if not thousands of patients wake up the next morning not knowing where they’re going to get the medicine they rely on. These patients are commonly forced to either go without their medication, travel long distances to obtain it, or engage with the illicit market as one of the few alternatives to such distribution prohibitions.

The California Supreme Court ultimately focused on two issues: whether medical marijuana distribution is protected activity under the scope of California’s medical marijuana law, and, if so, whether local dispensary bans are preempted by state law.

Much time was spent dissecting the first issue as it relates to the statutory language of the law. Did the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) passed in 2003 sufficiently spell out the mechanism for lawful distribution in the state? Did the statutory language sufficiently protect such distribution from local bans? Or, did local bans frustrate the purpose of the law, which is to uniformly implement a functional medical marijuana program?

Little time, however, was spent reviewing existing case law that the High Court at one time or another had the chance to review. Plaintiffs’ counsel, J. David Nick, raised People v. Urziceanu and People v. Colvin, and would likely have raised People v. Jackson if the Justices hadn’t cut him off, to show that the legality of dispensaries was well established. Unfortunately, the City of Riverside’s false claim that no case law existed to substantiate the legality of storefront distribution went unchallenged.

Some Justices, Judge Goodwin Liu in particular, questioned whether the MMPA was anything more than limited immunity from criminal prosecution. If so, the Court could logically evade the decision of whether cities can ban distribution. The California Supreme Court ruled previously in Ross v. Ragingwire that no right to civil action existed for patients and the City of Riverside missed no opportunity to invoke that decision. However, neither party nor the court raised an important caveat to Ross. In Butte County v. Superior Court, a landmark appellate decision that was denied review by the High Court solidly affirmed the civil rights of patients under state law. The Butte County Court held that the Medical Marijuana Program Act passed in 2003 was not limited to criminal immunities; it also could be applied more broadly in the civil context under certain circumstances.

Regardless of how the Court rules in Riverside, patients will continue to demand uniform application of the law and a right to safe and legal access to their medicine. The patchwork system that currently exists in the state, with far more municipal bans than regulatory ordinances, has perverted the will of California voters and jeopardized the health and safety of countless patients.

The California Supreme Court has a chance to assist in the equitable implementation of California’s medical marijuana law. Sensible public health policy dictates that municipal governments should have the right to regulate safe and legal distribution of medical marijuana, but not ban that activity outright. The High Court knows what to do and should take decisive action, ensuring against any further harm resulting from the current haphazard and largely punitive policy on local medical marijuana distribution.
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