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MAP: California Supreme Court rules cities can ban marijuana dispensaries (PDF)

Marijuana plants for sale at Studio City's Perennial Holistic Wellness Center.
Bear Guerra/KPCC
Marijuana plants for sale at Studio City's Perennial Holistic Wellness Center.

Map | Court document

In a long awaited ruling, the California Supreme Court on Monday said cities are allowed to prohibit storefront marijuana dispensaries. Medical marijuana activists had long fought against that possibility, arguing the state’s 1996 voter-approved Compassionate Use Act allows local governments to regulate dispensaries, but not ban them. The justices unanimously rejected their argument.

The court said the act protects medical marijuana users and their caregivers from prosecution, but cities are free to use local zoning laws to ban what some call “pot shops.”

“This decision provides much needed guidance,” said attorney Jeffrey Dunn, who represented the City of Riverside in the case on which the court based its ruling.

"As expected, the Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed that local governments have the authority and obligation to protect public safety and regulate land uses,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

Medical marijuana activists worried the ruling would make it harder to patients to obtain marijuana.

“In essence, the Supreme Court's decision will put the medical marijuana patient back in the position they were in five years ago, when dispensaries did not exist,” said David Welch of Angelinos for Safe Access. “A lot of them were forced to go to the street.”

Police argue many storefront operations are essentially brick-and-mortar drug businesses that hire doctors to provide marijuana recommendations to customers — or don’t bother with recommendations at all. Welch conceded there are bad actors in the industry.

“The problem is a lack of regulation by government officials," he said. "If they were to actually regulate dispensaries, the government themselves would eliminate the shady operations."

The ruling is only one part of a “perfect storm” swirling around medical marijuana right now, said attorney Brad Hertz. He pointed to three measures on L.A.'s May 21 municipal ballot.

Measure “D,” which Hertz represents, would limit the number of dispensaries to about 135 and place various restrictions on them. Measure “E” would essentially do the same. Measure “F” would allow an unlimited number of dispensaries. City officials estimate more than 1,000 of them operate in LA now.

Hertz and other medical marijuana activists worry about what will happen if voters reject all three measures.

“The city council may be emboldened by the Supreme Court ruling and may seek to prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries altogether,” Hertz said.

The other action on medical marijuana is in Sacramento. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has proposed legislation (AB473) that that would establish statewide regulations for dispensaries, and have the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control enforce them.

“I hope to move toward that different approach so we can ensure that patients have access to medical cannabis wherever they live,” Ammiano said in a statement. “That’s what the voters of California wanted when they passed the Compassionate Use Act.”

His bill might assist some of the 36 cities that issue permits for dispensaries, including West Hollywood, Garden Grove and Palm Springs. It would not override cities that ban pot shops, which include Anaheim, Pasadena and San Bernardino.  An estimated 200 California cities have enacted bans.

Other issues remain around medical marijuana:

--The Supreme Court ruling was silent on mobile marijuana delivery services.

--Some cities argue it's illegal to exchange cash for marijuana, even if it’s a donation by a member of the dispensary collective.

--The federal government still bans marijuana entirely. Federal prosecutors in California have moved to close dozens of pot shops, but appear unwilling to launch a full-scale crackdown.

--The California Medical Association has called for the legalization of marijuana, so researchers can better understand its medical benefits. Right now, the medical community issues no guidelines on dosage.

Ammiano said he’s part of a coalition looking at placing a measure on the 2016 ballot that would legalize marijuana. A similar measure lost by eight percentage points in 2010, but Ammiano says support is growing.

Green markers represent city ordinances. Red markers represent city bans.

California Supreme Court decision on medical marijuana

This story has been updated.