Pot Decision Could Lead to Dispensary Bans

Appeals panel overturns Long Beach dispensary rules.

By Sharon Bernstein
|  Thursday, Oct 13, 2011  |  Updated 8:38 AM PDT
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Cities throughout the state are expected to start outlawing medical marijuana dispensaries in the wake of a court decision that overturns a key effort to regulate them.

The ruling by a panel of judges on California's 2nd District appellate court this week said cities could restrict marijuana dispensaries, but they can't do anything that would appear to give them approval or legitimacy.

The ruling could have wide repercussions in the state, said Jane Usher, an assistant City Attorney in Los Angeles who works on issues of cannabis dispensaries.

Small cities, she predicted, would simply ban dispensaries outright, in order to avoid violating federal law. Others would try to find more modest ways to regulate them, such as limiting the hours that they could remain open, or banning them from certain neighborhoods.

The ruling is sure to up-end efforts by the City of Los Angeles to regulate its many pot dispensaries,  Usher said.

"What you’ll see in the coming weeks are lots of cities in California adopting complete bans on all dispensaries," Usher said.

Long Beach council members will consider whether to ban the dispensaries there, and officials in Los Angeles will face similar decisions, officials in both cities said.

Bob Shannon, City Attorney of Long Beach, said he plans to brief the council on their options during a closed-session meeting on Oct. 11, and action is expected soon after.

He said the city may have little choice.

"If we allow collectives in the city of Long Beach, we can do very little to regulate them," Shannon said. "We can’t do anything to permit them so basically it puts us in a Catch-22. It almost leads to the conclusion that if we want to act in the best interests of the citizens of Long Beach we have to ban these collectives."

Already, on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported renewed efforts by federal prosecutors to shut down some dispenaries in the state.

"Medical marijuana is under assault by the federal government," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. He confirmed that several dispensaries around the state had received letters Wednesday and Thursday from federal prosecutors, ordering them to close down.

Both issues - regulating the dispensaries and allowing them to stay open at all - grow out of a conflict between state and federal laws. Even though California law allows marijuana to be used for medical purposes, federal law does not. The court in Long Beach walked a fine line, ruling that states could decriminalize the use of pot, but they couldn't make it actually legal.

The city's effort to regulate, the court said, resulted in a situation in which Long Beach had actually approved the dispensing of pot, in violation of federal drug laws.

Long Beach's ordinance was one of many attempts by cities to regulate pot dispensaries, which have been proliferating at great rates throughout California. The city held a lottery, and allowed the winners to distribute marijuana to customers who had prescriptions for it. 

Like other cities, L.A. has struggled with an incredible proliferation of pot dispensaries  over the past several years. The city had considered a lottery similar to the one used by Long Beach, but will no longer be able to do so.

Ironically, perhaps, the law was challenged by a dispensary that did not win the lottery.

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