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California cities have tried regulating medical marijuana. Some have attempted to profit from it. And many, faced with a proliferation of storefront collectives they cannot control, have turned to banning it entirely.
On Tuesday, members of California's highest court expressed skepticism over claims that the state's medical marijuana laws prohibit local governments from banning storefront pot shops.
During oral arguments in a challenge to the city of Riverside's ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, several justices of the California Supreme Court said they were bothered by the fact that neither a 1996 voter-approved initiative that legalized marijuana use for health purposes nor companion laws the Legislature adopted in 2003 expressly state that cities and counties must accommodate retail marijuana stores.
Justice Joyce Kennard said that just because the laws allow eligible residents to use marijuana without fear of criminal prosecution, they did not necessarily take priority over the authority the California Constitution grants local governments to control local land use and zoning decisions.
"The relevant issue before the court is to note the city's regulatory authority over land use ... and that power does not derive from the medical marijuana program. It's a pre-existing power," Kennard said.
The City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient s Health and Wellness Center begins this week at the University of San Francisco School of Law over the city s legal authority to ban the dispensaries, which was upheld by an appeals court last year.
Federal appeals court on Jan. 22 rejected a petition from groups such as Americans for Safe Access to reclassify marijuana from current federal status as a dangerous drug with no accepted medical use
In November, Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana for recreational use
G3 Holistic president Aaron Sandusky found guilty Oct. 12 in federal court in Los Angeles of operating medical marijuana dispensaries in Upland, Colton and Moreno Valley. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The city of Long Beach votes to ban medical marijuana in August after a federal appeal court in 2011 ruled that Long Beach couldn t regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, as many other cities have attempted to do. Justices said the rules violated federal law. Long Beach then appealed to the state Supreme Court for clarification on its powers to regulate medical marijuana, but later banned collectives of more than three people.
City of Oakland files a federal lawsuit in San Francisco in October that seeks to prevent the U.S. Department of Justice from using its property seizure powers to get Harborside Health Center (a marijuana dispensary) evicted.
The Los Angeles City Council had voted to ban dispensaries but reverses its decision two months later after medical marijuana advocates collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to overturn the prohibition.
An appeals court in July strikes down Los Angeles County s ban on all dispensaries in unincorporated areas. Justices said that the state s medical marijuana laws authorize cooperatives and collectives to grow, store and distribute cannabis, contrary to the county s ban passed in 2010.
San Bernardino County approves ordinance that bans medical-marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas and limits cultivation of marijuana by valid patients to indoors only; Delaware legislature passed medical cannabis legislation; Connecticut legislature passed cannabis decriminalization legislation.
In California, voters defeat (53 percent to 47 percent) an initiative for cannabis legalization; Arizona voters approve medical cannabis initiative for the third time since 1996; District of Columbia City Council passes medical marijuana legislation; New Jersey legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
Michigan voters approve medical cannabis initiative.
New Mexico legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
Rhode Island legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
The California state Assembly passes SB 420, requiring ID cards for medical marijuana users; Montana voters approve a medical cannabis initiative; Vermont s legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
Nevada and Colorado voters approve medical cannabis initiatives. Hawaii legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
Maine voters approve a medical cannabis initiative.
Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Arizona pass medical cannabis laws and patient protections. A legislative effort in Oregon is successfully made to place a cannabis re-criminalization initiative on the ballot, which fails, as Oregonians prove they really like their so-called cannabis de-crim laws.
California passes Proposition 215, the medical marijuana law and first in the nation. Since then 17 other states and the district of Columbia have followed.
San Francisco becomes first city to pass ordinance with 79 percent support in favor of medical patients having access to cannabis
Up in Smoke, featuring Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, is released and prominently features marijuana use.
President Richard Nixon appoints commission to study marijuana. Commission said marijuana should be regulated and decriminalized and Nixon rejected the findings.
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founded in Washington, D.C.; in the same year the Controlled Substances Act becomes law and sets up scheduling system for illicit and licit substances, classifying cannabis as a schedule I controlled substance.
Congress bans marijuana with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring labeling of ingredients, and states begin regulating opiates and other medicines, including cannabis.
Sources: Associated Press, NORML
But J. David Nick, a lawyer representing a dispensary Riverside officials have sought to close, told the court that lawmakers clearly intended to make marijuana easily and uniformly available for eligible residents statewide, a goal that dispensary bans thwart.
"The word `regulation' does not, in any way, signal prohibition," Nick said.
The Supreme Court has 90 days to issue its decision in the case, which will decide the fate of pot shop bans already adopted by about 200 cities and counties. Additional jurisdictions put on hold their consideration of either operating rules for pot shops or outright dispensary bans pending the court's ruling.
State of confusion
While they await an outcome, public officials and medical cannabis advocates can agree on one thing: California's medical marijuana law is almost as ambiguous now as when voters passed it as Proposition 215 in 1996.
Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing the right for adults to use cannabis legally, called the current medical marijuana law "chaotic and vague."
"The real issue is the circumstances in which it's legal to distribute and sell cannabis in California are not spelled out clearly," Gieringer said.
The confusion has led more than 175 cities and 20 counties in California to ban retail pot shops, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
Most bans use zoning codes to bar marijuana collectives from operating.
Unlike federal law, state law does not always pre-empt local ordinances, and cities are granted the right of home rule to govern areas such as zoning, said Loyola Law School professor Karl Manheim.
But he said zoning-based marijuana bans might have a difficult time withstanding scrutiny from Supreme Court justices because Proposition 215 and Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003, clearly permit medical marijuana, even if the laws do not exactly outline the process.
"For them to say you can't have it anywhere in town, that seems to be an effort to nullify state law," Manheim said.
Unless the case considers the federal prohibition on marijuana, California law intends that sick persons have access to marijuana, so the question becomes whether cities are acting against the intent of the state's medical cannabis statutes.
"I think a strong argument can be made that it does frustrate that purpose," he said.
A Los Angeles County ban on all dispensaries in unincorporated areas was struck down last July for that reason, with an appeals court saying the state's medical marijuana laws authorize cooperatives and collectives to grow, store and distribute cannabis, contrary to the the ban passed in 2010.
"The phrase `regulate the location, operation, or establishment' does not mean ban, prohibit, forbid, or prevent all medical marijuana collectives and cooperatives from operating within the entire jurisdiction `solely on the basis' that they engage in medical marijuana activities," Judge Robert Mallano wrote.
Many of the local bans were enacted after the number of retail medical marijuana outlets boomed in Southern California following a memo from the U.S. Justice Department, stating that prosecuting pot sales would be a low priority.
The rush to adopt bans has abated over the last 18 months, since the four federal prosecutors in California launched a coordinated crackdown on dispensaries by threatening to seize the properties of landlords that leased space to them. Hundreds of pot shops have since been evicted or closed voluntarily.
Although some medical marijuana advocates had hoped the state court's seven justices also would determine whether pot's federal status as an illegal drug prohibits local governments from explicitly authorizing its distribution at all, as about 50 California counties and cities have, the court Tuesday deliberately shied away from any discussion of federal versus state law.
The experiences of Los Angeles County's second-largest city, Long Beach, show the challenges faced by cities that try to establish cannabis access for medically authorized patients.
Long Beach banned medical marijuana collectives of more than three people in February last year only after trying and failing to control how many collectives could be operated within its borders.
The Long Beach City Council passed an ordinance in 2010 that required collectives to participate in a lottery for a limited number of permits and pay a nonrefundable application fee. The city also imposed an annual permit fee starting at $10,000 that increased depending on the size of the marijuana-growing collective.
"The political sense in the council was they didn't want to ban it, but they did want to regulate," said City Attorney Robert Shannon, who drafted the law.
The ordinance was short-lived. Two medical marijuana patients sued the city, arguing that the permit process forced participants to violate federal law prohibiting the sale and distribution of marijuana. Appellate judges agreed and struck down the regulations in October 2011, leading the city to adopt an all-out ban.
Though Long Beach's ban doesn't prohibit medical marijuana entirely, advocates say the small collectives now allowed are not realistic for sick patients who are unable to invest the capital and labor required to grow cannabis. Officials with the city said they are closely watching the Riverside case to determine the extent of their power to control the medical marijuana industry.
The city of Los Angeles has also struggled to adopt its own regulations that would guarantee access to medical marijuana while protecting neighborhoods from the problems that may come along with pot shops.
The uncertainty associated with current interpretations of the law has left Los Angeles without any regulations and as many as 800 to 1,000 marijuana dispensaries operating in the city.
The unchecked growth of pot shops became such a problem that the Los Angeles City Council tried to impose an outright ban on all the dispensaries. But medical marijuana supporters quickly collected enough signatures for a referendum to overturn the ban, so the council members rescinded it.
Now, voters in Los Angeles face three measures on the May 21 ballot, all proposing different schemes for regulating medical marijuana dispensaries - two drafted by advocates and one a compromise pushed by a councilman.
Councilman Paul Koretz, who worked on the compromise proposal, spoke for many politicians across the state when he said it has been difficult for lawmakers to develop a policy amid conflicting court rulings.
"It certainly has been frustrating to local officials and all policymakers, not to know what the options are, but what's most frustrating is that communities and patients have been left unprotected as the courts have failed to act or give clarity," Koretz said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.