Calif. vs. Mass. on marijuana bans

In November, Massachusetts voters legalized medical marijuana, and sent cities, towns, and state regulators scrambling. State public health officials are still sorting out regulations for selling patients a substance that remains illegal under federal law, while municipalities are grappling with questions about how, or whether, to fold marijuana dispensaries into local zoning.

Last month, Attorney General Martha Coakley appeared to put one of the larger unanswered questions surrounding the marijuana regulations to rest. Coakley ruled that while cities and towns may restrict where dispensaries may be located, municipalities couldn’t ban them outright. A recent decision out of California is likely to throw that decision into flux, though.

On Monday, California’s state supreme court ruled that towns in that state could legally issue outright bans against medical marijuana dispensaries. According to the Wall Street Journal, the California court found that the state’s medical marijuana law, created through a 1996 ballot initiative, “limits the inherent authority of a local jurisdiction, by its own ordinances, to regulate the use of its land.” The decision stems from an effort by the city of Riverside to broom dispensaries out of town. A local dispensary fought the city’s efforts, saying the state’s medical marijuana law gave it the implicit right to set up shop. But the state supreme court disagreed, ruling that the marijuana initiative didn’t alter or weaken municipal zoning powers.

Riverside’s attorney cheered the decision, telling the Journal that the ruling would reinforce the ability of municipalities to exercise “the authority to protect public safety” and “reduce the risk of abuse and all the negative secondary impacts that are associated with selling marijuana.”

The Massachusetts ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana set up a far stricter regime than California’s. The Bay State law caps the number of dispensaries that may open at 35; the Journal story notes that as many as 1,000 dispensaries are currently operating in Los Angeles alone.

Although the California court ruling doesn’t have any direct bearing on the marijuana law and regulations Massachusetts is enacting, it’s likely to give marijuana opponents hope. Coakley ruled against outright municipal bans of dispensaries after Wakefield, Melrose, Peabody, and Reading had enacted bans, rather than just restrictions. Coakley’s office ruled that the bans couldn’t stand, as the marijuana ballot initiative’s “legislative purpose could not be served if a municipality could prohibit treatment centers within its borders, for if one municipality could do so, presumably all could do so.” Instead, Coakley’s office said, the most cities and towns could do would be to issue temporary moratoriums, and restrict dispensaries from certain areas, like near schools or residences.

Wakefield is now appealing Coakley’s rejection of its dispensary ban. “I think the feeling was that it’s in the best interest of Wakefield not to have these facilities, and we are going to move forward as strongly as we can with what the people wanted,” Wakefield town administrator Stephen Maio told the Globe. If he can’t go into court waiving a decision, from California, he at least has to be cheered by it. It shows the wrangling over dispensaries could just be getting started. 

                                                                                                                                                            –PAUL MCMORROW


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