California Cities And Counties Can “Just Say No” To Medical Marijuana Dispensaries


The California Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a local ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, holding that the ban was not preempted by state statutes governing medical marijuana.  The decision does not come as a surprise, given that California appellate court decisions consistently have upheld local land use regulation of dispensaries.  City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health & Wellness Center, Inc., 2013 WL 1859214 (Case No. S198638, May 6, 2013).&

The case involved a set of zoning provisions adopted by the City of Riverside classifying medical marijuana dispensaries as a “prohibited use” and authorizing the city to abate such uses as a public nuisance.  Invoking these provisions, the city brought a nuisance action to shutter a medical marijuana facility operated by the defendants.  The trial court issued a preliminary injunction banning the distribution of marijuana from the facility, and the court of appeal affirmed the injunctive order.

In upholding the lower courts, the California Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ claim that the city’s ban was preempted by the state’s medical marijuana laws.  The court reasoned that these state laws represent only “incremental steps” - “careful and limited forays” - toward liberalizing access to marijuana by qualified patients.  According to the court, the narrowly drawn state statutes merely exempt the medicinal use of marijuana from state criminal and civil sanctions; “they do not establish a comprehensive state system of legalized medical marijuana; or grant a ‘right’ of convenient access to marijuana for medicinal use; or override the zoning, licensing, and police powers of local jurisdictions; or mandate local accommodation of medical marijuana cooperatives, collectives, or dispensaries.”

In support of its ruling, the court noted that because local interests may vary, it may not be reasonable to expect every jurisdiction in the state to allow medical marijuana dispensaries.  As the court explained:  “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 accordingly rejected the proposition that the state’s medical marijuana laws imposed a “one-size-fits-all” policy, “whereby each and every one of California’s diverse counties and cities must allow the use of local land for such purposes.”

The court concluded by emphasizing that nothing in its decision prevents the Legislature, or the people of California, from adopting a different approach.  And so the debate over medical marijuana, and the role played by local dispensaries, is sure to continue in the legislative and policy arenas.

Read about this and other legal developments in Perkins Coie's California Land Use & Development Law Report.

Please see our website for more information about our California Environmental, Energy, Resources & Land Use professionals:

Louise Adamson, 415.344.7036
Cecily Barclay, 415.344.7117
Marc Bruner, 415.344.7171
Marie Cooper, 415.344.7012
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Arthur Haubenstock, 415.344.7022
Julie Jones, 415.344.7108
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Alan Murphy, 415.344.7126 
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Barbara Schussman, 415.344.7168
Chris Tom, 415.344.7047

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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