The California Supreme Court tipped its collective hand back in February when justices responded skeptically to arguments by medical marijuana advocates to vacate municipal dispensary laws. The court ruled as expected on May 6, affirming the power of local governments to ban medical marijuana dispensaries using zoning laws.
Nearly 200 local governments in California prohibit the establishment of brick-and-mortar dispensaries, including five cities in SLO County. Arroyo Grande and Atascadero also forbid mobile dispensaries.
In a unanimous opinion penned by Justice Marvin Baxter, the court held that the various laws legalizing medical marijuana in California leave room for cities and counties to prohibit storefront distribution.
“We must take these laws as we find them, and their purposes and provisions are modest,” Baxter wrote. “They do not establish a comprehensive state system of legalized medical marijuana, or grant a “right” of convenient access to marijuana for medicinal use.”
The case involved a 2010 Riverside ordinance banning all dispensaries as public nuisances. Riverside won a trial court injunction against Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, forcing the dispensary to close.
The importance of the Riverside case stems from its place in the court docket rather than the scope of its effect on dispensary laws. Riverside's strong victory in defending the injunction all but assures that California dispensary bans will remain in place after the court addresses the constitutionality of the ordinances in an upcoming companion case.
Medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access responded to the ruling by lobbying California lawmakers to establish a statewide system for regulating distribution. Don Duncan, the group's state policy director, argued in a press release that the ruling promises to further degrade patients' ability to purchase medication safely.
"The ball is in the legislature's court to establish statewide regulations that both meet the needs of patients and keep communities safe," Duncan said.