Cal. Supr. Court Upholds Riverside Medical Marijuana Zoning Ban

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 07, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Local governments have a traditional land use and police power to allow, restrict, limit, or exclude certain types of businesses. For example, they might ban strip clubs within 100 feet of a school. This inherent power is granted wide deference by the courts and local zoning regulations are ordinarily upheld unless they conflict with state laws.

Medical marijuana laws in California have been narrowly interpreted in a variety of contexts, from criminal cases to the present zoning case. The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 and the Medical Marijuana Program have created exceptions in criminal law for those cultivating, prescribed or prescribing marijuana, and have prevented the use of state nuisance actions to shut down marijuana dispensaries.

Combine these two principles, and you have the California Supreme Court's opinion in City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients. State law restricts the use of state nuisance actions. Local entities have inherent zoning power. That leaves local zoning restrictions as a perfectly allowable means of shutting down, or prohibiting the establishment of, medical marijuana dispensaries.

The court's opinion begins with a number of past cases in which the CUA and MMP were narrowly constricted, including:

  • Kruse, where the City of Claremont's denial of a business license to a medical marijuana dispensary (and later moratorium on all dispensaries) was upheld by the Court of Appeal, because, "there is nothing in the text or history of the [CUA] that suggests that the voters intended to mandate that municipalities allow [such facilities] to operate within their city limits." The court also found no implied preemption under either state statute.
  • Hill, where the City of Los Angeles prohibited the opening of a dispensary within 1,000 feet of a library, school, playground, park, place of worship, etc. Despite the MMP's implementation of a ban on dispensaries within 600 feet, and the immunity from state nuisance prosecution, local entities are not precluded from adopting greater restrictions.

In the present case, the City of Riverside implemented a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries and on any facility that is prohibited by federal or state law. The city then brought a nuisance action against Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center.

The explicit language of the CUA and MMP do not prohibit such a ban. Referring to the means and objectives of the two laws as "modest," the California Supreme Court continued the lower courts' trend of narrowly interpreting the laws. The plain text of the laws exempts certain individuals from criminal prosecution and state nuisance actions, requires local entities to participate in the medical marijuana identification card program, and prohibits clinics near schools. That's it.

Anything else would be implied, and the courts continue to "stress[] the narrow reach of these statutes." Unless the state legislature steps in, or another initiative is passed, local governments are free to ban clinics outright -- and effectively force patients to travel long distances or seek out product on the black market.

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