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California Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Local Pot Dispensaries

Despite state laws and federal enforcement, the decision allows cities to regulate medical-marijuana storefronts with ordinances

The California Supreme Court has decided that cities can ban medical-marijuana dispensaries with zoning ordinances, despite state laws allowing access for qualified patients and their primary caregivers.

The decision, which could affect local communities, came in a lawsuit in which the City of Riverside sued the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, and obtained a preliminary injunction after arguing that the dispensary was a public nuisance and being used for something that was illegal by federal law.

The state’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996 allowed for the collective cultivation, possession and use of marijuana by qualified patients without criminal consequences, and the Medical Marijuana Program in 2004 enhanced access.

The Compassionate Use Act and Medical Marijuana Program “remove state-level criminal and civil sanctions from specified medical marijuana activities, but they do not establish a comprehensive state system of legalized medical marijuana; or grant a right of convenient access to marijuana for medicinal use; or override the zoning, licensing, and police powers of local jurisdictions; or mandate local accommodation of medical marijuana cooperatives, collectives, or dispensaries,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote in the decision.

Nothing in those two laws limits the authority of a local jurisdiction to regulate use of its land, by its own ordinances, he wrote.

The Inland Empire dispensary started operating in 2009, and was sued for an injunction shortly after, which was then upheld by an appeals court.

The Court of Appeal believed, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Riverside’s ordinance provisions “do not duplicate or contradict the state statutes concerning medical marijuana.”

Many jurisdictions already have enacted bans on these dispensaries — which sell medical marijuana to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.

At the time Santa Barbara County voted to ban them, Guadalupe, Solvang, Buellton, Goleta, Carpinteria and Lompoc had already done the same. 

Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Ventura, however, created ordinances to allow and regulate the storefront dispensaries. There have been numerous legal arguments over the definition of a dispensary versus a collective.

Most local dispensaries bought marijuana from growers and then sold it to their members, who were qualified patients.

Santa Barbara’s permitting process required members to live within the county and have a valid doctor’s recommendation; cultivation had to be within the tri-counties; and establishments could not turn a profit.

An earlier ordinance was broad and considered flawed, so the City Council worked on a stricter law — adopted in 2010 — that capped the number of dispensaries and mapped out areas where the storefronts could be.

Four storefront dispensaries had city permits, which mandated that they abide by California medical-marijuana laws in addition to ordinance rules.

“The California Supreme Court ruling is a good one that supports local control over statewide mandates over municipal zoning rules,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “Any changes to the city’s current ordinance would require five votes, and I don’t know of any plans to change the current regulations.”

Despite the permitting process, they all closed within a few months of the Drug Enforcement Administration conducting raids last May and the U.S. Attorney’s Office delivering asset-forfeiture warning letters to all dispensary building property owners in the county. 

The federal government considers all marijuana possession, cultivation, sales and use illegal, and the Drug Enforcement Agency raided the permitted Pacific Coast Collective on Milpas Street on May 2, 2012, which was the third time since 2008.

Agents also raided the Miramar Collective in Summerland and a marijuana farm in a two-story building on East Haley Street.

Every storefront dispensary in the city closed down after that, and no applications have been filed for permits ever since, according to the city Planning Department, which handles the permits.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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