Few issues have sparked so much debate in so many local governments then how to regulate the medical marijuana industry. Proponents have filed numerous challenges to various attempts by cities and counties, but now the legal, if not the political issue, has been resolved. In the lead case – City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient’s Health & Wellness Center, Inc. – the unanimous Supreme Court has confirmed the power of local authorities to regulate, and even ban, facilities that distribute medical marijuana. The Court noted that the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 and the Medical Marijuana Program simply “removed certain state law obstacles from the ability of qualified patients to obtain and use marijuana for legitimate medical purposes.” This is not a mandate that such facilities must be allowed, nor an attempt by state government to dominate the field, and therefore these state laws do not preempt the constitutional right of cities and counties to exercise their police powers to regulate such facilities, or even ban them. As such, the City of Riverside ordinance which declares all marijuana dispensaries as a banned public nuisance, and which also bars any use which violates federal or state law, is valid. This limited view of these state laws as being “incremental steps” to increase access to medical marijuana, rather than signaling a more expansive reform, is wholly consistent with the Court’s previous ruling in Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc. (2008) 42 Cal.4th 920, in which the Court held that the medical marijuana laws did not protect a medical user from being discharged after failing a drug test.
As a result of this ruling, local debates will not necessarily be limited to how to best implement medical marijuana dispensaries. Now, medical marijuana proponents may have to defend the policy of allowing such dispensaries at all, city by city, county by county. However, establishing the power of local authorities to act goes a long way to allowing some resolution to take place. For example, an attempt by Los Angeles to regulate dispensaries in 2010 drew 66 lawsuits and a court injunction, with many of the suits challenging the city’s authority to act. (See, Los Angeles Times, 5/10/13.) Los Angeles was so shell shocked by this debate that it now has three separate measures on the ballot for the upcoming election, each proposing a different set of regulation and taxation policies for dispensaries, in the hopes that the public picks one with sufficient support to at least put some policy in place. However, now that the right to act has been confirmed, perhaps even Los Angeles will be able to reach a decision.