California’s Supreme Court on Tuesday tackled the central legal question in the battle over medical marijuana dispensaries: Do cities and counties have a right to ban them, even as state law allows their existence?
After Riverside banned medical marijuana dispensaries within its city limits, the founder of one collective sued to overturn the ban. The case has made its way to the top of California's judicial ladder. Local governments throughout the state are watching the case closely as they struggle to manage the proliferation of clinics.
At Tuesday's hearing, the attorney for the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, David Nick, told the justices that neither the city of Riverside or any local government has a right to bad dispensaries.
He insisted that in passing California’s Medical Marijuana Program Act in 1996, state lawmakers “sent a message unequivocally: ‘We are not going to allow you to shut down a medical marijuana collective, simply because they’re doing what the law authorizes them to do.’”
But the attorney for the City of Riverside, Jeffrey Dunn, argued that municipal governments have a long history of authority to police their own borders as they see fit. The Justices appeared to agree with that long-standing legal principal. One judge said the state would have had to expressly forbid local governments from banning pot dispensaries.
Justice Ming Chin pointedly noted: "The Legislature knows how to say, Thou shalt not ban dispensaries. They didn't say that."
But justices also weighed the legislature’s intent in passing the law, which was to make sure patients have access to marijuana for medical use.
Justice Kathryn Werdegar told Riverside's lawyer, "If all counties throughout the state ban [dispensaries], and I gather many have, that purpose is thwarted."
After the hearing, the Riverside collective’s founder said if the justices side with local governments, then state lawmakers need to pass a stronger law to implement California’s voter-approved Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act.
“The voters said we want people to have access to medical marijuana,” said Lanny Swerdlow. “They called upon the state of California to do something to set up such a program.”
The justices are expected to rule on the matter this spring. Among the most interested parties is the City of Los Angeles. Its City Council banned pot dispensaries last year, only to rescind the ban a couple of months later. On Tuesday, the council approved a measure that will be put before voters on the May ballot. The city's measure, which would limit the number and location of dispensaries, joins two others already on the ballot.
Tuesday's Supreme Court session was held at the University of San Francisco in commemoration of its School of Law's Centennial Celebration.