Marijuana Regulations Growing Like Weeds in California

by Best Best & Krieger LLP
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Although California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, cities have differed widely in their response to medical marijuana dispensaries. Recently, Newport Beach joined Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills, Anaheim and Rancho Santa Margarita in banning medical marijuana dispensaries from operating in their cities. Conversely, other cities, including Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, have chosen to regulate dispensaries. For instance, Costa Mesa, has a draft ordinance that establishes a comprehensive regulatory scheme for the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana within the city limits. Regardless of these varying approaches, cities may have to decide soon what stance they will take on the issue of medical marijuana cultivation, and the time is ripe for cities to review their current regulatory schemes.

The recently signed Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, becomes effective Jan. 1, and places pressure on cities to either regulate or ban dispensaries within city limits. Under MMRSA, the state will assert regulatory authority over marijuana cultivation if city regulations or bans have not been implemented by March 1 (though this deadline may be extended). MMRSA provides for a dual-licensing system, entitling local governments to issue permits or licenses to dispensary operators if the state also issues a license. MMRSA provides for continued local control and does not disturb any of the existing bans on the cultivation or distribution of medical marijuana. Further, local regulations are allowed to be more stringent than state standards. The state’s growing role in marijuana regulation is underscored by a federal court ruling in October that prohibits the Drug Enforcement Agency from interfering with dispensaries operating in compliance with California law.

With the approach of the 2016 voting season, medical marijuana dispensaries are not the only source of contention across the state. The debate surrounding non-medical marijuana use is intensifying. As reported previously, state officials are taking a stricter position on recreational marijuana use. Critics of recreational use strongly contest the credibility of advocates’ incarceration and cost-related arguments supporting non-medical marijuana legalization.

Additionally, the problematic effects of synthetic marijuana use nationwide and the regulatory challenges it poses further color the local recreational marijuana use debate. At the same time, at least 10 new non-medical legalization initiatives have been filed for the 2016 ballot. It is unclear how these initiatives, if enacted, would interact with one another.

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