What This Week's Supreme Court Ruling Means For L.A.'s 3 Marijuana Ballot Measures

A closeup of a marijuana bud grown in an indoor growing facility in Santa Barbara, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Kyle Trafas

In the wake of the California Supreme Court opinion affirming that cities and counties can outlaw medical marijuana dispensaries by invoking local zoning laws, proponents of medicinal pot in Los Angeles say the stakes are now higher for passing a comprehensive plan regulating the sale and distribution of marijuana in the city.

The state's highest court ruled unanimously Monday that the city of Riverside had the right to prohibit all pot dispensaries in their jurisdiction, adding to a list of roughly 200 localities with zoning bans already in place. It's the expectation by many engrossed in California's marijuana debate that other cities and counties will follow suit, upping the ante for the three medicinal pot initiatives -- Proposition D and ordinances E and F -- on Los Angeles' May 21 ballot.

"Given yesterday's Court ruling, if none of the three medical marijuana measures passes, it could embolden the City Council to once again seek banning [dispensaries] altogether," said Bradley Hertz, an attorney for the Yes on Proposition D campaign, a Los Angeles City Council-backed initiative seeking to regulate local pot shops.

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Hertz's concern stems from last year, when the Los Angeles City Council approved a "gentle ban" on marijuana businesses within city limits. Led by Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar, among others, the 2012 ban called for all pot stores to close, allowing only for small collectives of four or fewer caretakers and/or patients to stay open.

The ban was fueled by collective sentiment that the pot clinics were contributing to crime increases in a number of council districts and that patients were abusing medical marijuana prescriptions. The number of dispensaries was also skyrocketing, making regulation nearly impossible.

Huizar believes the Court's ruling validates the Council's "gentle ban." He has long advocated for the Council to wait for clarification from the state Supreme Court before enacting any new medical pot legislation.

Monday's ruling, in his eyes, was just that.

"This court ruling tells us that if chaos ensues once again and there is rampant abuse of whatever ordinance voters approve on May 21, we as a City have the authority to outright ban medical marijuana dispensaries," Huizar said in a statement to KCET's Ballot Brief.

The authority described by Huizar lies in the implementation of zoning laws. Zoning, in relation to land use, is the way local governments control what is built within their jurisdiction.

In California, the regulation of land use has constitutionally been the province of local governments, explained Jane Usher of the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. A classic example of land use prohibiting certain businesses, Usher said, is with tanneries or slaughterhouses in the state.

"People understand that over time many -- if not most cities -- in California outlawed slaughterhouses within their jurisdiction," Usher said. "This was done with zoning."

According to the state Supreme Court ruling, authored by Justice Marvin Baxter, "...while some counties and cities might consider themselves well suited to accommodat[e] medical marijuana dispensaries, conditions in other communities might lead to the reasonable decision that such facilities... would present unacceptable local risks and burdens."

Usher expects the Court's opinion will encourage most of California's cities and counties to invoke zoning laws to ban marijuana businesses operating in their jurisdiction.

"[Cities and counties] know that if they attempt to regulate, they will be subjected to exhaustive litigation," she said. "Every 'I' that they dot, every 'T' they cross, every breath they breathe into their regulation will be challenged."

"That was the case here in Los Angeles for the past 5 to 6 years," Usher added.

With the fate of Los Angeles' estimated 1,700 to 1,800 medical marijuana clinics hanging in the balance, voters will have the chance later this month to decide whether they want to regulate local dispensaries or leave that decision up to the City Council.

And with the City Council's history of seeking an outright ban, proponents of medical marijuana believe May 21 is their one chance.

"Our position is that we are the watchdogs for the community that use marijuana medicinal or otherwise," said Bruce Margolin, Director of Los Angeles' NORML chapter, an advocacy group seeking outright legalization of marijuana. "We believe the number of the dispensieries should match up with the number of people who live in the community."

The limiting or closure of medical marijuana stores would certainly not accomplish that goal, Margolin -- who supports Ordinance F -- added.

The city's three medical pot initiatives -- Proposition D and ordinances E and F -- outline three distinct, yet intersecting plans for the regulation and taxation of medicinal pot inside city limits. The measures include provisions on capping the number of dispensaries, raising taxes on earnings and providing background checks on employees, among others.

"I hope the [California Supreme] Court's ruling focuses voter's attention on the medical marijuana ballot measures and encourages people to vote," Hertz said. "And that they see that Proposition D is the best option."

Scroll below for the California Supreme Court's ruling in City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center Inc:

For a little help navigating Los Angeles' three proposals for regulating medical marijuana, KCET's Ballot Brief has put together a cheat sheets for voters: Proposition D, Ordinance E, and Ordinance F.

About the Author

Benjamin Gottlieb is an award-winning multiplatform journalist from Los Angeles, CA. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN.com and NPR, among others.
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