Complicating Legal Web, California High Court Upholds Local Medical Marijuana Bans

In California, even medical marijuana dispensaries legally complying with state and local laws are being targeted by the federal government in a new round of crackdowns. But there are many cities and towns in the state that have imposed their own medical marijuana bans. And on Monday, the California Supreme Court dealt one of the biggest blows to the state industry since a law was first passed in 1996, upholding those bans as not preempted by state law. The court ruling upholding a ban in Riverside, Calif. could affect some 200 others jurisdictions that have some sort of dispensary restriction or ban on dispensaries that would be legal under state law but federally illegal (since all marijuana is federally illegal), and resolves conflicting legal rulings by lower California courts. The court explained:

As we have noted, the CUA [Compassionate Use Act] and the MMP [Medical Marijuana Program] are careful and limited forays into the subject of medical marijuana, aimed at striking a delicate balance in an area that remains controversial, and involves sensitivity in federal-state relations. We must take these laws as we find them, and their purposes and provisions are modest. They remove state-level criminal and civil sanctions from specified medical marijuana activities, but 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.

The bans, of course, make it more difficult for the state to implement a legal system for medical marijuana, which is why other jurisdictions have struck down local bans. In Massachusetts, a decision from Attorney General Martha Coakley issued shortly after the passage of that state’s ballot initiative held that Massachusetts law does not allow for flat-out bans of dispensaries, because it would frustrate the law’s “legislative purpose.” Coakley noted, however, that different state laws and structures may dictate different results. What’s more, California’s law differs from those in other states in that it creates a voluntary state-wide system for dispensaries to regulate themselves so that they can comply with state restrictions. Local jurisdictions have their own more specific or mandatory licensing schemes.

One thing Monday’s decision does achieve is suggest why these state marijuana laws are not likely to fall under a legal challenge by federal authorities claiming they are preempted by federal drug law, which some have mulled in response to two state ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana. As the court explains, the state medical marijuana laws “remove state-level criminal and civil sanctions from specified medical marijuana activities,’ but do not create a comprehensive state system, or grant a “right of convenient access.” Other state statutes are somewhat more robust than California’s in licensing state dispensaries. None, however, create a state-run system for dispensing marijuana or a right to use marijuana for any purpose, both of which likely would be preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act because they create a direct conflict with the criminal law, rather than simply eliminating some actors from punishment under state law.