BY RICHARD K. De ATLEY
STAFF WRITER
rdeatley@pe.com

Published: 15 April 2012 02:18 PM

Advocates and opponents of California’s medical marijuana clinics are in a legal no-man’s land after a flurry of appellate court decisions that contradict each other on whether local governments can ban the dispensaries.

The decisions also conflict on how the clinics can supply themselves with marijuana.

“We have had a potpourri of various court rulings, and they’re all conflicting,” said Lanny Swerdlow, a registered nurse and board member of a Riverside-based Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center.

“We have had one 4{+t}{+h} District Court branch say cities can ban; we have had another 4{+t}{+h} District Court branch saying ‘no,’ cities can’t ban; We’ve had the 2{+n}{+d} District court say you are allowed to transport, whereas the 4{+t}{+h} District Court said you can’t transport – it’s just a total disaster,” he said.

The whipsaw of court rulings leave more than 200 cities that have instituted bans of medical marijuana clinics — as well as the clinic operators and patients who use them — uncertain of where they will land when the law gets settled.

The battle is over whether local governments can preempt the state laws governing medical marijuana clinics – the state’s 1996 Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215) or the state Legislature’s Medical Marijuana Program.

Clinic advocates say local governments disregard state law by banning the clinics; attorneys for the counties and cities say they are within their right to use zoning laws to ban the dispensaries.

The courts’ north-and-south pole rulings are likely because of a lack of clarity in the laws, said Stanford Law School professor Robert Weisberg.

“Clearly the problem here is that there is some language in the medical marijuana laws that some people think is a little ambiguous,” he said. “That might invite municipalities to use local zoning laws that restrict or forbid the clinics, and there seems to be some ambiguities about that.”

The Riverside decision cites, “Where, as here, there is no clear indication of preemptive intent from the Legislature, we presume Riverside’s zoning regulations…are not preempted by state law,” Associate Justice Carol Codrington wrote.

A ruling regarding the City of Long Beach took another turn. The coastal city decided it would allow dispensaries, but wanted to regulate them with its own ordinances. A court decided that the city could not make such rules because under federal law, marijuana is illegal.

The latest twist in the dispensary legal saga came Feb. 29, when the 4{+t}{+h} District Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana ruled that the City of Lake Forest in Orange County could not ban medical marijuana dispensaries.

That came after a series of rulings that favored cities and counties exerting greater local control over the clinics, topped by a decision by the 4{+t}{+h} District Court in Riverside’s November ruling that local governments could ban the dispensaries outright, said John Higginbotham, an attorney with the Riverside-based law firm of Best Best & Krieger. The law firm has represented several cities in the legal fight to ban the clinics.

“The Lake Forest decision was kind of a surprise to many people,” Higginbotham said. “It’s hard to reconcile all those previous cases with that.”

The Riverside decision was vacated when the state Supreme Court in January took it and three other medical marijuana cases to eventually rule on the already tumultuous legal structure of California’s medical marijuana laws.

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