It's been a roller-coaster year for California's medical marijuana providers.
As 2013 began, federal authorities were continuing their latest crackdown on dispensaries founded under Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized pot for personal, medical use. (See Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 11362.5.) They said they were targeting for-profit operations that were flouting federal law. (Later in the year, the Department of Justice indicated a softer stance on marijuana - at least in other states.)
May brought defeats for pot providers at the state and local levels. First, the California Supreme Court upheld the use of zoning ordinances to prohibit dispensaries, validating more than 200 bans enacted by cities across the state since 2004. (See City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health & Wellness Center, Inc.
, 56 Cal. 4th 729 (2013).) Opponents of medical marijuana - including the California Narcotics Officers' Association and the California Police Chiefs Association - praised the decision, while advocacy groups worried it would force pot patients to drive hours for a dose. "It's pushing the patient community into the illicit market," says Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access. Later that month, Los Angeles voters capped the number of pot shops allowed in the state's largest city at 135, down from more than 700 registered there in 2012.
Advocates and opponents actually agree the state should regulate medical marijuana more heavily. Attorney David Welch, who represents patients and dispensaries in Los Angeles, says that would ensure patient access and add clarity to a legally murky business. "We want statewide control. We want rules that are concrete," Welch says. Kim Raney, president of the state police chiefs group, says more effective regulation could help control fraud, limit the commercialization of medical pot, protect minors, and set standards for driving under the influence.
Most Californians support allowing the use of medical marijuana, and a Field Poll in February found 54 percent even say pot should be legalized for recreational use, as it was last year in Colorado and Washington state. But federal authorities still classify it as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." In June the U.S. Attorney's office sent a new round of warning letters to more than 100 dispensaries in and around Los Angeles, threatening some of their landlords with asset seizure and jail time for hosting commercial marijuana operations. The DOJ seemed to relax in August, saying it would respect Colorado's and Washington's new pot laws if the states set up strong regulatory systems. But in the Northern District of California, the office of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said she doesn't expect "a significant change" on marijuana enforcement.
At the state level, nothing changed in 2013. In June, the Assembly rejected a bill from Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) to create a division to regulate medical marijuana within the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. In August, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) put off a proposal to exempt dispensaries from prosecution as long as they abide by the state attorney general's security guidelines for medical marijuana. And September saw the defeat of another bill Ammiano sponsored after seeing the DOJ's apparent shift; he says he'll introduce it again next year. And at least one pot measure is likely to be on the statewide ballot in 2014.
"We're back to where we were four or five years ago," says attorney Welch: "The Wild West."