These are trying times for California's medical marijuana dispensaries.
Not only has a zealous U.S. Attorney launched a significant crackdown, but pot clubs across the state are increasingly being targeted by blanket bans from local municipalities looking to keep their cities and towns drug free--or, at least, force patients and their caretakers to grow their marijuana themselves.
The legal fight against such bans, taken up in The City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center case, went before the California Supreme Court today when oral arguments began at the University of San Francisco School of Law.
The primary question in the case, which will have reverberations in the nearly 200 California cities and counties that have prohibited dispensaries, is whether these municipalities have the authority under state law to ban the controversial facilities.
"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," T. Peter Pierce, an attorney for Los Angeles attorney representing the city of Upland, CA in a similar case, told the Los Angeles Daily News. "The trial courts are feeling like they don't have concrete guidelines and have been all over the place on this issue."
California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215) nearly two decades ago, which allowed medical marijuana to be provided by nonprofit clinics. Besieged marijuana providers argue that the law gives them license to operate wherever they choose, although most admit that communities should be allowed to put in some conditions for clinic operators to follow--as long as said conditions fall short of a blanket ban.
"There is a long line of precedent from the California Supreme Court that sets down a very basic rule, and the rule is: local governments cannot ban what state law makes lawful," J. David Nick, an attorney representing the dispensary, told KQED's California Report.
Medical marijuana advocates have worried about the possible repercussions of allowing communities to issue blanket bans. "If it's the case localities can ban, you could end up with the entire southern and middle portion of the state banning dispensaries, which clearly does not promote uniformity throughout the state or safe access [to marijuana]", Americans for Safe Access legal director Joe Elford explained to the Associated Press.
However, cities have argued that the law doesn't prevent individual municipalities from enacting bans on the facilities, and that federal law prohibiting the sale of marijuana overrides California's own drug statutes.
"These places are popping up everywhere, and in the typical city that had one or two, two became four and four became 16 or 20," Jeffrey Dunn, an Orange County lawyer who has worked in support of the local bans told NBC Bay Area. "What has happened as a practical matter is this state law, which authorizes the medical use of marijuana, and federal law that prohibits it, has forced cities and counties to be the ones to regulate this like any other entity that crops up in our business districts."
In this particular case, the city of Riverside, which enacted a ban on pot clubs, sent a letter to Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center in 2009 demanding the organization shut down. The club refused to comply and continued to operate. The city filed a complaint the following year and a judge granted an injunction ordering the center's closure. The injunction was upheld by an appellate court in 2011, but the case was later appealed and taken up by California's highest judicial body.
During Tuesday's hearing, the justices seemed skeptical of the center's arguments. Bloomberg Businessweek reports:
Justice Goodwin Liu said during a hearing today in San Francisco that while the act shields patients from state sanctions, it doesn't address actions against medical marijuana taken by local authorities. "It's a limited immunity from certain kinds of state actions, but it says nothing about local sanctions," Liu said.
"If the Legislature wanted to prevent localities from banning the dispensaries, why didn’t they say so expressly?" Justice Marvin Baxter asked.
"The Legislature knows how to say 'thou shalt not ban dispensaries,'" added Justice Ming Chin. "They didn't say that."
"From the questioning by the Justices this morning, it appears that the Supreme Court will have a difficult time overturning the traditional, preexisting land use authority of the cities," said former Los Angeles City Attorney Joan Smyth, who has had experience defending city zoning laws, in a statement to the Huffington Post. "The Chief Justice stated that the core issues of the case pertain to land use regulation, zoning and authority for land use purposes, and she questioned whether the statute should be read such that the traditional police powers should be constrained by the Compassionate Use Act and the Medical Marijuana Program Act, when those statutes themselves do not speak to the city's traditional police power to regulate its land uses."
The court's ultimate decision in the case is expected issue its ruling sometime in the next 90 days.