by Michael Montgomery
The California Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in San Francisco Tuesday on whether cities and counties can ban retail pot dispensaries - even though state law specifies that Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana if they have a doctor's recommendation.
The court's ruling in the case is likely to come this spring.
"City of Riverside versus Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center" is one of at least six appellate court cases coming down on different sides of the issue - and many people are looking to this case to deliver some legal clarity.
Storefront dispensaries proliferated since voters approved the use of medical marijuana 17 years ago, but there also has been a backlash.
In California there are now some 180 local bans on pot dispensaries, according to Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group. Attorney David Nick says the court should strike down these bans. "There is a long line of precedent from the California Supreme Court that sets down a very basic rule, and the rule is that local governments cannot ban what state law makes lawful," Nick says.
Nick represents the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center. Two years ago the dispensary sued the city of Riverside over a local zoning ordinance that bans any facility where medical marijuana is made available.
The city argued that local governments have broad power to determine how their land is used and, also, that the state cannot authorize something that is illegal under federal law. An appellate court sided with Riverside so the defendants appealed the Supreme Court. The justices already have a backlog of medical marijuana cases which are being watched closely, and not just in places that have outlawed medical pot.
In Los Angeles, efforts to regulate rather than ban dispensaries have been challenged by advocacy groups and remain mired in lawsuits. That leaves few if any rules in place, says Jane Usher, a Los Angeles special city attorney. "Chaos isn’t helpful," she says. "It isn’t helpful to cities. It’s not helpful to patients. So to the extent that the California Supreme Court is able to provide clarity I think everybody benefits."
Listen to audio of the arguments: