Arizona Judge Prevents Local Governments from Banning Dispensaries; If Only Californians Were As Fortunate

An Arizona judge overturned a Maricopa County ordinance Monday, claiming that local governments cannot adopt a prohibition on medical marijuana dispensaries as an "attempt to prevent implementation of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act."

In his ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Gordon held that a county "may not use its zoning powers to violate state law." The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA), passed by initiative in 2010, establishes rules to license more than 100 dispensaries across the state. So far, more than 40,000 patients have qualified to use medical marijuana under the program.

While Judge Gordon's ruling only applies to Maricopa County, home of notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, it sets the stage for local governments across the state to begin to adopt land use regulations in accordance with the Act instead of attempting to skirt state law. Judge Gordon previously ruled in another Maricopa County case that federal law did not preempt Arizona's medical marijuana law and could not be used as an excuse to refuse to implement the AMMA.

With more than ten times the number of patients and dispensaries than in Arizona, California has nevertheless failed to ensure the same kind of access to medical marijuana for its patients. Even though patients in California are forced to endure a patchwork of access, with large areas of the state devoid of any dispensaries at all, the State Supreme Court held earlier this year that local governments could continue to lawfully ban dispensaries in their communities. In the case  City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, the court upheld more than 200 municipal bans in California, conceding however that "nothing prevents future efforts by the Legislature, or by the People, to adopt a different approach."

Joining patient advocates in California, the attorney general and several mayors have called on the state legislature to step up and adopt strong statewide regulations. In the face of failure by the California Supreme Court to protect a patient's right to legally obtain medical marijuana, all eyes are now on the state legislature.

Unfortunately, proposed legislation such as AB473 and AB604, introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), has simply affirmed the ability to ban dispensaries as local officials see fit. And yet, even with municipal concessions such as this, law enforcement lobbyists strenuously fought against the bills, ultimately preventing their passage.

Instead of placating law enforcement lobbyists and the municipal interests hostile to medical marijuana, California legislators would do well to use Arizona's playbook and begin to design a system of equitable access. That way, hundreds of thousands of California patients won't be forced to rely solely on the good will of a few local governments. Patients deserve better.