In a major coup for the City of Los Angeles, a judge last Friday upheld a medical marijuana ordinance whose enforcement had been challenged by a flurry of lawsuits from 29 local pot dispensaries, according to news reports.
Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr denied the dispensaries’ request to prevent the City from enforcing the four-year-old ordinance that has been the focus of a contentious legal battle over the past year, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The weekend decision, which the Times described as “a major victory for the city attorney's office,” comes at a crucial time for California’s medical marijuana collectives.
Just a week before Mohr’s ruling, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys announced a sweeping crackdown against medical pot facilities. Days later, the RAND Corporation, bowing to criticism from the City Attorney’s office, withdrew a study that argued that crime increases in neighborhoods where the government orders pot dispensaries to shut down.
Given the judicial and media spotlight under which the city’s ordinance has been since December 2010—when the same judge who upheld it also invalidated large portions of it as unconstitutional—Friday’s surprising but hardly unexpected ruling appeared to be largely buried in the news. In fact, predicted President Michael Larsen, it is “the most understated news item of the year.”
Medical Pot Facilities Have No Vested Rights
In a 26-page opinion, Judge Mohr denied a request by the 29 pot dispensaries for a preliminary injunction against the City’s ordinance, the Times reported last night (after initially posting the news in a hurried blog). “Mohr rejected all of the arguments raised by collectives, concluding that the local law was properly adopted, provides due process rights, protects patient privacy and does not set up an arbitrary process to limit dispensaries,” the Times said, adding that the judge also ruled that “the city's dispensaries have no vested rights to continue operating.”
That finding, tinged with legal issues surrounding inalienable "individual rights," is crucial, the Times quoted Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher as saying. "Had that argument prevailed, we would be addressing the claims of more than 200, perhaps as many as 500 collectives," she said, adding: "I never felt that argument had a shred of credibility."
In an interview with Eagle Rock Patch this past Wednesday, Usher said that as the complexities of the still-evolving law surrounding medical marijuana become “painfully clear to everyone” it also becoming clear that “the ideas being put forward” in recent legal judgments were “familiar to our City Council during its initial round of hearings two years ago.”
Despite the ruling’s support for the City’s ordinance, the City Council is scheduled to have a closed-session meeting Tuesday to work in what will be its third draft of the decree, aimed at making it less susceptible to legal challenges.
A related reason for Tuesday’s session is the fact that a Los Angeles appellate court recently barred the City of Long Beach from using a lottery to decide which pot facilities can remain open. That is something L.A. also set out to do last March when it ordered 141 facilities—including four in Eagle Rock—to shut down for failure to meet a lottery deadline that would allow a maximum of 100 facilities to remain open citywide.
The so-called “Pack vs. Long Beach” decision—which, in a nutshell, allows cities to restrict and limit the actions of medical marijuana collectives but not to authorize, advance or permit them because marijuana in any form is still deemed illegal by the federal government—is set to become law in the first week of November unless it is appealed. Judge Mohr, however, reportedly did not consider it in his ruling because it runs counter to other decisions by state appellate courts.
"The law appears to be unsettled now, and this court sees no benefit or present need to add to the fray with another ruling," Mohr wrote in his ruling, according to the Times. But he noted that the “Pack” court’s decision could have a "profound impact" on L.A.’s medical marijuana ordinance, underscoring the point that special assistant attorney Usher made when she said in our recent story that Los Angeles and other cities under the appellate court’s jurisdiction “will have to consider how to adopt prohibitory ordinances that adhere to the ruling in the Pack case.”
Meanwhile, the City and medical marijuana collectives are also trying to negotiate a settlement. "Our clients are still willing to work with the city to find a reasonable solution," the Times quoted Aaron Lachant, a lawyer for the 29 dispensaries, as saying.
That part of Mohr's ruling that denies marijuana collectives any vested right to exist could determine how the City Council limits dispensaries, Usher told the Times. One likely option would be for the City Council to settle for a far simpler ordinance than the one it has been working on—based on firm zoning regulations controlling the number of facilities.