The court ruled that the state’s constitution, which allows cities to declare businesses a “public nuisance,” trumps marijuana legislation.
After Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana in November, many marijuana advocates believed the U.S. was on a path to end marijuana prohibition. But on Monday, the California Supreme Court made a ruling that advocates say was a step backward.
In the City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center, the court ruled that individual cities and towns can legally ban medical marijuana dispensaries. The case began in 2010 when the city of Riverside banned dispensaries. Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center objected to being shut down and sued the city, saying that the ban went against the state’s medical marijuana law known as the Compassionate Use Act (CUA).
The California Constitution allows cities to declare businesses a “public nuisance” and shut them down. Inland Empire’s lawsuit against the city claimed doing so to drive out marijuana dispensaries went against the CUA’s objective of “ensuring access to marijuana for the seriously ill who need it in a uniform manner throughout the State.”
Lower courts in California have consistently agreed that there is nothing in the CUA or the Medical Marijuana Program (MPP) that says every city needs to allow marijuana businesses. Yesterday, the California Supreme Court agreed, writing:
“Nothing in the CUA or the MPP expressly or impliedly limits the inherent authority of a local jurisdiction, by its own ordinances, to regulate the use of its land, including the authority to provide that facilities for the distribution of medical marijuana will not be permitted to operate within its borders.”
Access to marijuana
Medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996. Since then, about 200 cities and towns throughout the state have prohibited the herb’s sale. Most of these bans have come in the past five years, after the number of dispensaries skyrocketed and marijuana opponents were concerned the drug was too easy to obtain.
Los Angeles alone was home to about 1,000 dispensaries in 2009, but as the local government received more and more pressure from the federal government, authorities began to crack down on the industry, shutting down many of those dispensaries.
“The irony in California is that we regulate everything that consumers purchase and consume, and somehow this has been allowed to be a complete free-for-all,” said Jeffrey Dunn, the lawyer who successfully represented Riverside in its defense of its ban. “Cities and counties looked at this and said, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t expose the public to these kind of risks,’ and the court recognized that when it comes to public safety, we have independent authority.”
Others like Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, expressed concern that the ruling may make it hard for medical marijuana patients across the state to obtain marijuana.
“It is time for the state legislature to enact statewide medical marijuana oversight and regulation that both protects patient access and eases the burden on localities to deal with this issue on their own,” Todd said. “Localities will stop enacting bans once the state has stepped up and assumed its responsibility to regulate.”
Larry Swerdlow is a nurse who co-founded the Inland Empire center and a neighboring clinic where people were able to obtain prescriptions for medical marijuana. He said that banning dispensaries would force residents to get the drug on the street and pledged to keep fighting.
“I kind of look at the gay community. I mean, they had lost all these elections on gay marriage, 40 states and this kind of stuff, but they didn’t give up,” Swerdlow said. “We’re not going to give up either.”
Indeed, medical marijuana supporters in many cities across California have not given up. Officials looking to either outlaw or limit marijuana shops in San Diego, San Jose and Los Angeles gave up their efforts against marijuana after voters threatened to overturn the rulings with voter referendums.
While marijuana advocates in California fight to maintain dispensaries, states like Colorado and Washington are awaiting word from the federal government on how the Obama administration will handle recreational legalization.
Marijuana is illegal federally, even for medical purposes, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has raided numerous dispensaries in states that legalized medical marijuana. The White House remained relatively mum on the issue until last weekend, when during a visit to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Mexico, President Obama said he does not believe legalizing drugs will solve any problems.
Talking to a group of young students, Obama said that drugs — which are a chief, if under-the-table, import from Mexico to the U.S. — is to blame for the rise in cartel violence.
“We understand that much of the root cause of violence that’s been happening here in Mexico, for which many so Mexicans have suffered, is the demand for illegal drugs in the United States. And so we’ve got to continue to make progress on that front.”
Obama’s remarks reiterated what was published in the latest plan by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which considers recreational drug use to be a public health issue. A large focus of the program is mixing prevention techniques with effective rehabilitation programs.
Though marijuana was never singled out by Obama in his remarks, legalization activists are concerned that the administration views marijuana users as people with addiction issues. This is a problem for many activists, since they argue there is no proof that marijuana is addictive.