Legislation to impose statewide regulation on the storefront sale of medical marijuana advanced this week, but it’s unclear how it would affect local ordinances in Inland Southern California and elsewhere that seek to ban the dispensaries. The California Supreme Court is expected to rule within days in a Riverside case that centers on whether local governments can use zoning and land-use authority to block marijuana ispensaries. Commercial marijuana sales continue to be illegal in the view of the federal government.
California voters legalized the use of medical marijuana 16 years ago. But other than a 2003 state law that created a voluntary identification card program for users, state lawmakers have done little to clear up questions about which level of government should regulate medical marijuana.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, the author of Assembly Bill 473, said confusion about the rules has led Riverside and some other jurisdictions to “overreact” and prohibit the dispensaries outright. “We thought it was time to implement some standardization around the regulation of medical marijuana,” he said Thursday, April 25. “It will protect patient rights and it will give communities clear guidance.” Ammiano’s bill would create a Division of Medical Marijuana Regulation and Enforcement in the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The division would regulate “the cultivation, manufacture, testing, transportation, distribution, and sale of medical marijuana,” according to the bill.
The measure would require a fee schedule to be in place by Jan. 1. The fees would pay to oversee the program. People who operated unregistered medical marijuana facilities would face $25,000 fines.
The bill cleared the Assembly Public Safety Committee on a party-line vote earlier this week; Ammiano leads the panel. One of the no votes was Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, the committee’s top Republican. “This would put local law enforcement directly at odds with federal law” banning marijuana, Melendez said Thursday. Supporters say the bill, by setting up a regulatory framework, would actually discourage federal concerns about the state’s medical marijuana industry that have led to periodic crackdowns.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is hearing from both sides of the debate as it decides how to respond to recent measures in Washington and Colorado that legalized the recreational use of pot. One sign of the administration’s attitude came earlier this week, when drug czar Gil Kerlikowske called marijuana legalization an “extreme” approach.
Also potentially affecting the California legislation will be the upcoming decision by the California Supreme Court in City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center.
Oral arguments in the case were Feb. 5, and the court usually issues decisions within 90 days, which would be May 6. Inland governments that prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries include Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the cities of Riverside, San Bernardino, Hemet, Redlands, San Jacinto, Corona, Norco, Murrieta, Temecula and Moreno Valley.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which backs the proposed law, said the rules would “create a greater sense of stability and safety” about the storefront sale of marijuana and decrease the likelihood that local governments would prohibit the dispensaries. Ammiano said he thinks his bill would not affect current ordinances.
But John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association, which opposes the measure, said he thinks local governments would be powerless to stop a would-be dispensary that sought a state license. “High Times Dispensary would get a license to operate in Anytown, California, and I don’t think Anytown could do anything about that,” Lovell said. Prosecutor and police chief associations also oppose the bill.
Lanny Swerdlow, founder of the Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center, has not been involved in drafting AB473. He said he is uncertain how the legislation would affect the dispensary ban in Riverside and other cities but, based on the groups opposing the bill, he is inclined to support it. “If law enforcement is against the bill, then it might very well be a good thing,” Swerdlow said. “The cops don’t want any marijuana anywhere.”
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