By LISA LEFF
The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that cities and counties can ban medical marijuana dispensaries, a decision likely to further diminish the network of storefront pot shops and fuel efforts to have the state regulate the industry.
In a unanimous opinion, the court held that California’s medical marijuana laws _ the nation’s first and most liberal _ neither prevent local governments from using their land-use powers to zone dispensaries out of existence nor grant authorized users convenient access to the drug.
The ruling came in a legal challenge to a ban enacted by the city of Riverside in 2010, but another 200 jurisdictions have similar prohibitions on retail pot sales, the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access estimates. Many were enacted in the past five years as the number of dispensaries swelled and amid concerns that the drug had become too easy to get.
A number of counties and cities were awaiting the Supreme Court ruling before moving forward with bans of their own.
Of the 18 states that allow the medical use of marijuana, California is the only one where residents can obtain a doctor’s recommendation to consume it for any ailment the physician sees fit, as opposed to only for conditions such as AIDS and glaucoma. The state also is alone in not having a system for regulating growers and sellers.
Marijuana advocates had argued that allowing local governments to bar dispensaries thwarts the intent of the medical marijuana law that voter’s passed nearly 17 years ago. On Monday, they blamed the absence of state oversight and the failure of local authorities to adopt operating guidelines that fall short of banning dispensaries for the court’s decision.
Two bills are pending in the California Legislature that seek to establish a new statewide system for regulating and licensing the medical marijuana industry, and to clarify the role of dispensaries in it. Advocates hope to see language that would make it harder for local governments to outlaw dispensaries by requiring voter approval for any bans, Drug Policy Alliance Policy Manager Amanda Reiman said.
Activists also are in the early stages of planning a ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana and regulate it like alcohol, as voters in Washington and Colorado did last year.
Although California is believed by advocates and law enforcement agencies to have had thousands of dispensaries a few years ago, the number has dropped significantly as communities and federal authorities have cracked down. However, counting with any precision is impossible because record-keeping varies from community to community, many dispensaries do not advertise, and no overall state total is kept.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the U.S. attorneys have threatened to seize the property of landlords who lease space to the shops. Hundreds of dispensary operators have since been evicted or closed voluntarily.
Riverside city lawmakers used their zoning authority to declare storefront pot shops as public nuisances and ban the operations in 2010. The Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center, part of the explosion of retail medical marijuana outlets, sued to stop the city from shutting it down.
Larry Swerdlow, a nurse who co-founded the Inland Empire center and a neighboring clinic where people can obtain recommendations to use marijuana, said Monday that banning dispensaries would force residents to get the drug on the street. He also pledged to keep fighting.
Medical marijuana supporters in several cities, including San Diego, San Jose and Los Angeles, have stopped officials from either outlawing or limiting pot shops by threatening to overturn them with voter referendums.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams in Sacramento contributed to this story.