California Supreme Court Rules for Bans of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

This controversy continues to hold the spotlight. California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996.  The tax income it generates is astronomical, yet the California Supreme Court ruled last week that local governments have the power to rezone the dispensaries out of existence in their cities.

The problem started almost immediately when the voters approved the sale but legislation didn’t spell out how sales or the industry would be regulated. That mistake, coupled with the fact that the federal government still considers the “pot shops” and the sale of medical marijuana illegal, has confounded attempts to regulate the number, location, and operation of the dispensaries.  This led many cities to ban the dispensaries rather than allowing a limited number of them and regulating how they operate.  Attempting to regulate is equal to defending in court.  Even after some lower court decisions, operators in some cities refused to follow the city bans. The Supreme Court ruling will make it easier for cities to sanction defiant dispensaries through fines and/or jail sentences.

The test case came from the city of Riverside who shut down more than 56 cannabis operators in the last 3 years. There were more than a dozen defiant operators in the city.

Operator supporters said the ban was preempted by state law, which allows patients access to medical marijuana. The Supreme Court’s ruling did not say that retail sales of medical marijuana were legal, only that the cities had the right to ban the sales.  This is the traditional skirting of the issue that puts pressure on both sides.

Some growers who own dispensaries have a great deal of money invested in complying with other regulations such as the Long Beach restriction requiring  all marijuana sold had to be grown in-house. Also, the city of Long Beach provided for a limited number of dispensaries by having a lottery for the permits and each permit required a$15,000 fee.

Medical marijuana advocates say that patients may have to drive a long way to obtain their marijuana legally. But, many say that the cities who wanted to ban have already done it.

There are still many questions that need answering about the sale of medical marijuana.  How many dispensaries are enough? How large can a dispensary be? Must the weed be grown onsite? Does the dispensary have to be nonprofit?  Supporters are hoping that this ruling will pave the way for standards, testing, permits for dispensaries and fees that would pay for a new agency to regulate.

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