Dual Sovereignty - Preemption - California Supreme Court Upholds Local Zoning Ban on Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Article excerpt

DUAL SOVEREIGNTY--PREEMPTION--CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS LOCAL ZONING BAN ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISPENSARIES. --City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health & Wellness Center, Inc., 300 P.3d 494 (Cal. 2013).

In 1996, the citizens of California voted to enact Proposition 215 and become one of the first states in the nation to decriminalize medical marijuana. (1) The result was the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (2) (CUA), expanded and clarified by the legislature in 2003 with the Medical Marijuana program (3) (MMp). recently, in City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health & Wellness Center, Inc., (4) the California Supreme Court upheld a local zoning ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, despite these state laws. The court read both the state laws and the state preemption test narrowly, avoiding the more delicate question of whether California's decriminalization of medical marijuana is preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act (5) (CSA). Thus, by allowing Riverside to restrict its own residents' medical mar-ijuana access, the California Supreme Court may have forestalled more significant challenges to California's legalization project at large.

Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center (Inland Empire) had operated a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverside, California, since 2009. (6) Located in a commercial district and composed of the many colorful stalls of various sellers of cannabis products, inland Empire said it operated "for the sole purpose of forming an association of qualified individuals who collectively cultivate medical marijuana and redistribute [it] to each other." (7) The same year it began operations, Inland Empire was put on notice by Riverside's Community Development Department that its medical marijuana operations were locally banned. (8) As Inland Empire continued to operate, the city moved for a preliminary injunction. (9) The state trial court granted the injunction against inland Empire and a host of other named and unnamed defendants, reasoning that Riverside's zoning regulations were particularly appropriate in light of the federal-state conflict over medical marijuana. (10)

California's Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed. (11) Writing for the panel, Justice Codrington (12) held that California state law did not preempt a municipal zoning ordinance's complete ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, and thus the granting of a preliminary injunction was proper on the ground that inland Empire constituted a public nuisance per se. (13) She identified a presumption in favor of upholding municipal zoning ordinances, placing upon the defendants the burden of proving that the local law was preempted. (14) Noting that neither the CUA nor the MMP expressly refers to local zoning laws, (15) that the CUA expressly declines to preempt laws prohibiting conduct that endangers others, (16) and that the MMP sanctions only "lawful" medical marijuana dispensaries, (17) Justice Codrington comfortably concluded that the local zoning ban was valid. (18)

The Supreme Court of California affirmed. (19) Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Baxter held that Riverside's total ban on medical marijuana dispensaries was not preempted by California's medical marijuana laws. (20) He opened his analysis with a summary of the federal CSA's classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance and its provision that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use," (21) and characterized California state law as "similar[]" to federal law except for certain "limited exceptions." (22) Noting that the federal law is still fully enforceable, he declined to weigh in on whether this apparent federal-state conflict could justify Riverside's total ban. (23)

Justice Baxter then proceeded to frame the discussion of state preemption of local law. He explained that the exercise of local police power is expressly recognized in the California Constitution and thus presumptively valid--especially where significant local interests may vary--unless in conflict with state law. …

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