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California Supreme Court Could Make Game-Changing Decision on Marijuana Policy

The court granted review for two rulings that dealt major blows to the medical pot industry, and has the opportunity to lay the foundation for future regulation.
 
 
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This past week California took a giant leap forward towards fixing the confusion that currently exists in the state over medical marijuana when the California Supreme Court granted review in two controversial medical marijuana cases:  Pack v. City of Long Beach and City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient's Health and Wellness Ctr.  The Pack decision held that some local regulations governing medical marijuana dispensaries may be preempted by federal law and the Riverside decision held that localities could legally ban dispensaries altogether.  Both have been used by localities to justify suspending local medical marijuana ordinances and instituting further moratoria or outright bans.  Both cases have generated considerable fear and instability among medical marijuana providers and led to decreased access to medicine by patients.  And both court decisions have now been vacated pending the California Supreme Court’s review. 

The US Attorneys in California have seized upon the confusion over localities’ authority to regulate medical marijuana to threaten prosecution of some of the most compliant, long-standing medical marijuana providers and undermine some of the most thoughtful, comprehensive, and successful local regulations in the state.  Federal officials in California have targeted these local actors in defiance of the Department of Justice’s written policy of letting be those who comply with state  law.  California federal officials have also departed course from their fellow US Attorneys in Colorado and New Mexico who have followed federal policy and  respected state law, so as to  allow those state medical marijuana programs to work  as intended.  By contrast, the US Attorneys in California are trying to eradicate responsible medical marijuana providers at the very moment that California’s highest court is poised to provide critical guidance about whether and how such providers can be regulated.    

Robust regulation of the medical marijuana industry is in everyone’s best interest.  Regulation protects patients by providing a legal and secure place for them to purchase an uncontaminated source of medicine.  Regulation protects the industry by providing producers and providers with notice as to what the rules are so that they may comply with them without facing severe risk to their finances and freedom.  Regulation protects the community by providing secure areas where medical marijuana is bought and sold, where identification cards are checked, rather than forcing those exchanges onto the street.  Regulations benefit law enforcement by providing bright, clear lines as to who is acting legally and who is not, so that law enforcement can use its scare resources to focus on bad actors and violent crime.  And finally, regulation will protect the investment of state and local governments and law makers who have spent thousands of hours crafting medical marijuana ordinances. 

What the California Supreme Court and the US Attorneys should recognize is that medical marijuana in California is not going away.  It was legalized under state law through voter initiative and can only be gotten rid of through voter initiative.  But the voters support legal access to medical marijuana—overwhelmingly.  Medical marijuana is here.  The only choice we face in this state is whether medical marijuana will be regulated.  There are hundreds of thousands of patients in the state who are going to buy, grow, and use medical marijuana.  Do we want this to be through a regulated market or on the street, where patients and the public don’t know who is buying or selling, or where the marijuana came from? 

The California Supreme Court needs to endorse the power of local governments to regulate medical marijuana.  Federal officials in California need to put their Nixon era Drug War ideology aside, follow the lead of their colleagues in other states and let California move forward with responsible regulations that protect patients and the public. 

Tamar Todd is a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.