Fallout From CA Ruling: More Dispensary Bans, Uncertainty…and Pressure for Statewide Regs

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The California Supreme Court’s landmark ruling yesterday allowing cities to outlaw cannabis dispensaries leaves the local medical marijuana industry in disarray, ensuring that a confusing patchwork of bans continues to exist across the state.

Medical cannabis professionals in California had hoped the court would prevent cities from enacting dispensary bans. In the end, they didn’t even have a shot: The court ruled in a 7-0 decision this week that local municipalities can indeed bar dispensaries within their boundaries. The case involved a dispensary – Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center – that challenged the city of Riverside’s recent ban on MMJ shops.

The court essentially ruled that cities can use nuisance or zoning moves to ban dispensaries, saying such moves do not violate or conflict with the state’s medical marijuana rules.

“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,” the court wrote in its decision (you can read the full ruling here).

The decision shouldn’t come as a surprise: Legal experts have been warning the California MMJ community not to get its hopes up.

Still, the ruling will ripple across the state’s medical marijuana in several ways:

#1. More cities will enact bans in the near future. Some municipalities pursuing dispensary bans have been waiting on the sidelines until the court decision. They are expected to move forward quickly in light of the ruling, meaning the state could see dozens of centers close in the coming weeks. Other towns that previously weren’t seriously considering bans might move in the same direction now that they have the clear authority to do so.

#2. It will be difficult to overturn existing bans. Roughly 200 cities in California have banned dispensaries (you can read a list of them here), meaning access to medical cannabis is limited in huge swaths of the state. Advocates in some of these cities have challenged the moves via the courts and other methods – but these efforts might now be futile.

#3. The MMJ climate in California will remain volatile. California doesn’t have any statewide regulations covering dispensaries, which led to the chaotic situation that exists today. The Supreme Court ruling essentially paves the way for more uncertainty and volatility, as it could encourage more cities to ban MMJ centers.

#4. Pressure will grow on the state to come up with a broader solution. Medical marijuana advocates have been pushing for change on the state level for years, to no avail. As a result of the ruling, expect a renewed push for statewide regulations. In fact, the industry is already coming out in force to support such change, highlighting a line in the Supreme Court ruling that says “nothing prevents future efforts by the Legislature, or by the People, to adopt a different approach.”

At a press conference in Sacramento held shortly after the Supreme Court released its decision, several industry leaders and advocates – including Harborside Health Center Executive Director Steve DeAngelo, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) Executive Director Steph Sherer and Dan Rush, medical cannabis director at the United Food and Commercial Workers union – stressed the need for action on a state level. They also presented letters from mayors of several cities, including Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco, urging state lawmakers craft dispensary guidelines.

“Patients should not be pushed into dark alleys in order to obtain a medicine that has been deemed legal by the voters of California,” Don Duncan, ASA’s California policy director, said in a statement. “The ball is in the legislature’s court to establish statewide regulations that both meet the needs of patients and keep communities safe.”

Khurshid Khoja, the principal and founder of Greenbridge Corporate Counsel, agrees. “My thoughts are that this decision underscores the urgent need to pass comprehensive statewide regulation of medical cannabis dispensaries in California,” Khoja told MMJ Business Daily. He added that industry professionals and drug policy reform activists in the state should “lobby their legislators to ensure we have statewide regulations in place as soon as practicable.”

Lawmakers recently introduced two measures – Senate Bill 439 and Assembly Bill 473 – that would help clear up the situation. But similar legislation in the past has stalled, signaling a reluctance by state lawmakers to establish a clear framework for dispensaries.