The state Supreme Court this week will hear arguments about whether cities can use zoning laws to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.
The high court will begin hearing oral arguments today from attorneys representing Riverside and attorneys for Inland Empire Patient's Health and Wellness Center, a medical marijuana collective in the city. The Supreme Court's ruling will be binding on numerous cases questioning the use of zoning to ban dispensaries and could affect dozens of cities bans.
"The Supreme Court is going to bring clarity and uniformity to the law because we now have some courts of appeal that have ruled in favor of cities in these issues and some that have ruled in favor of medical marijuana dispensaries," said T. Peter Pierce, an attorney for Los Angeles-based Richards, Watson & Gershon, whose firm is representing Upland in a similar case that was appealed to the Supreme Court. "And, the trial courts are feeling like they don't have concrete guidelines and have been all over the place on this issue." Medical marijuana patients were given the right to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use after voters passed Proposition 215 - The Compassionate Use Act of 1996.
However, cities have argued Proposition 215 does not prohibit them from creating ordinances to ban dispensaries.
More than 175 cities and 20 counties in California have banned retail pot shops, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. Riverside officials sent a letter to the center's operators in January 2009 informing them the city's zoning laws prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries. The center continued to operate, so the city filed a complaint in May 2010.
Riverside officials maintain that any use that is prohibited under state or federal law is also prohibited within city limits. The dispensary's operators claim they informed Riverside officials that they would be operating in the city and were a legal business. A trial court judge in November 2010 sided with the city and granted an injunction to close the center.
The center's operators filed an appeal with the Fourth District Appellate Court in Riverside. An appellate court judge in November 2011 upheld Riverside's use of zoning laws to ban medical marijuana dispensaries, but the case was then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case.
"The collective/cooperative system is the only legal way in which a patient can obtain their medicine," said Lanny Swerdlow, the founder of the not-for-profit collective in Riverside. "If we lose this case, that means cities can ban and most cities will ban. That means most patients will have to turn to criminals in order to obtain their medicine." The Supreme Court decided to hear the case in January 2012 along with similar cases in Upland and Long Beach.
Upland officials contend they are legally allowed to ban dispensaries through zoning, but representatives for G3 Holistic, a former Upland-based cooperative, contend otherwise. The case is not scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court, but attorneys for both sides will be closely watching how the Supreme Court rules on the Riverside case.
"They both raise the same legal issues, which is whether or not cities are preempted under the ... Compassionate Use Act from enacting bans on medical marijuana dispensaries as a matter of zoning," said Pierce.
A 2010 Los Angeles County ban on all dispensaries in unincorporated areas was struck down by a state appeals court last July, with judges saying the state's medical marijuana laws authorize cooperatives and collectives to grow, store and distribute cannabis.
In 2011, a federal appeal court ruled Long Beach couldn't even regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. Justices said the rules violated federal law. Long Beach then appealed to the state Supreme Court for clarification, but the case was thrown out after Long Beach repealed its law.
Meanwhile, an effort is building in Congress to change U.S. marijuana laws, including moves to legalize the industrial production of hemp and establish a hefty federal pot tax.
While passage this year could be a longshot, lawmakers from both parties have been quietly working on several bills, the first of which Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jared Polis of Colorado plan to introduce today, Blumenauer told The Associated Press.
Polis' measure would regulate marijuana the way the federal government handles alcohol: In states that legalize pot, growers would have to obtain a federal permit. Oversight of marijuana would be removed from the Drug Enforcement Administration and given to the newly renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms, and it would remain illegal to bring marijuana from a state where it's legal to one where it isn't.