California high court snuffs out pot shops' free reign

Courts | Angela Lu

California high court snuffs out pot shops' free reign

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, speaks during a news conference protesting medical marijuana laws at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.
Associated Press/Photo by Steve Yeater

The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that cities and counties can ban medical marijuana dispensaries, striking a blow to the nation’s first and least restrictive marijuana law.

In a unanimous opinion, the court held that the state’s 1996 medical marijuana laws did not prevent local governments from using their land-use powers to zone dispensaries out of existence or grant authorized users convenient access to the drug. 

The ruling came in response to a legal challenge to a ban enacted by the city of Riverside in 2010. Riverside is one of about 200 cities statewide that have banned pot shops. Many cities enacted bans in the past five years as dispensaries grew rapidly without the burden of regulations most businesses in California face.

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"The irony in California is that we regulate everything that consumers purchase and consume, and somehow this has been allowed to be a complete free-for-all," said Jeffrey Dunn, the lawyer who represented Riverside in the successful defense of its ban. "Cities and counties looked at this and said, `Wait a minute. We can't expose the public to these kind of risks,' and the court recognized that when it comes to public safety, we have independent authority."

California’s laws are the most liberal of the 18 states that allow the medical use of marijuana: 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 has no system for regulating growers and sellers.

Two bills pending in the California Legislature seek to establish a new statewide system for regulating and licensing the medical marijuana industry, and to clarify the role of dispensaries.  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.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and 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. Most recently, the city of Oakland filed suit late last year against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for attempting to close down Harborside Health Center, the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world. The shop generates more than $1 million in local taxes. 

Randy Thomasson, president of, said in a statement that the latest ruling is good news for the state as “most of those frequenting pot shops are ‘recreational users’ posing as ‘medicinal users.’”

"Now is the time for concerned Californians to urge their city and county officials to close all pot shops, which are creating crime in our neighborhoods and drug addicts among our youth," he said.

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