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Medical marijuana: California Supreme Court allows cities to ban pot dispensaries

In a 7-0 decision, the state's high court concluded that cities and counties have a right to restrict the dispensaries within their boundaries, rejecting the arguments of medical marijuana advocates who maintain local governments cannot bar activity that is legal in California. The ruling could now be used to bolster cities that want stricter regulatory rules on pot dispensaries that are allowed to operate.

"While some counties and cities might consider themselves well suited to accommodating medical marijuana dispensaries, conditions in other communities might lead to the reasonable decision that such facilities within their borders, even if carefully sited, well managed and closely monitored, would present unacceptable local risks and burdens," Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the unanimous court.

At least 180 cities across the state and Bay Area have enacted bans in recent years, including Watsonville and Scotts Valley. But the region's largest cities, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, have permitted the dispensaries, taxing the revenues while communities in between increasingly become dispensary-free zones.

Santa Cruz County developed an ordinance for governing dispensaries in 2011, but the Board of Supervisors imposed a moratorium before implementation due to the pending litigation. It's up to the board to decide what to do next, but with the court decision the time is right to revisit the issue, said County Counsel Dana McRae. They could lift the moratorium and implement the ordinance, or move in a different direction, she said.


"I'm really confident they are going to lift the moratorium and get back into the business of providing for medical marijuana patients who can benefit," said Santa Cruz attorney Ben Rice, who represents medical marijuana clubs.

Rice said while the decision was not a surprise, it was disappointing that the court failed to clarify the "many gray areas in the law."

"This just makes it more important for the (state) Legislature to step up and make common sense regulations," he said.

Many local governments have opted to ban the dispensaries due to worries about problems surrounding them, such as lax control over the distribution of a drug that remains illegal under federal law. The Supreme Court case is the latest legal struggle over the issue, which has repeatedly tested the limits of the voter-approved law that allows the use of marijuana to treat illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma and AIDS.

The Supreme Court found that the 1996 medical marijuana law did not address local regulation of dispensaries; it only provided that patients cannot be prosecuted for possessing medical pot under state law. The ruling called the law a "limited foray" into the medical marijuana arena, and stressed that the Legislature tried to forbid cities from enacting bans.

As a result, Baxter wrote, local governments have the power to use regulations, such as nuisance laws, to ban certain activity.

The Supreme Court decision came in a challenge to Riverside's dispensary ban. Riverside, backed by groups such as the League of California Cities, argued that local governments have strong rights to regulate land uses, particularly an unusual one such as a medical pot dispensary.

Medical marijuana advocates say the bans undermine the intent of the state law, which they argue was meant to provide uniform access to medical cannabis across the state for patients who need it most. With the bans in place, advocates say, many patients are forced to drive long distances to obtain the drug.

Americans for Safe Access, a leading marijuana advocacy group, said in a statement Monday that various groups will now push for state legislation would create uniform regulations statewide for dispensaries.

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