California: Activist Swerdlow At Center of State Supreme Court Marijuana Case

(Photo: Rachel Luna, Daily Bulletin)By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

The City of Riverside, California has for years attempted to close the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, a medical marijuana collective at the heart of a state Supreme Court case in San Francisco that could determine the future of medicinal cannabis in the state -- specifically if cities have the authority to ban dispensaries.

Riverside officials claim the city is trying to close the center because it prohibits such facilities in its zoning ordinance, reports Wes Woods at the Daily Bulletin.

Oral arguments in the state Supreme Court case were given on February 5; the court's decision -- due within 90 days of the hearing -- will have a big impact on similar cases in California.

After voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, patients were given the right to cultivate and possess marijuana for personal medicinal use. Prop 215 was the first medical marijuana law in the United States. But federal law bans marijuana for any purpose, classifying it as a Schedule I controlled substance with no accepted medical uses.

Riverside officials claim that Prop 215 doesn't prohibit them from banning dispensaries through zoning, but Lanny Swerdlow -- who founded the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center -- said that cities have no such right.

"State law specifically says patients can form collectives and cooperatives to produce their medicine," said Swerdlow, who, as a registered nurse, is also clinic manager at next-door Presto Quality Care, which provides medical marijuana authorizations. "If the state allows it, we say that a city cannot ban it, cannot prevent it," he said.

"They can license it, they can regulate it, but they can't overturn a state law by saying you can't do it," Swerdlow said. "It's an important issue because there's a thousand or more collectives in the state of California."

"If the court rules that cities can ban, all these are going to be closing down," he said. "And all of these legal outlets that medical marijuana patients have been utilizing to get their medicine, they're going to disappear overnight."

"Where are all these people going to get their medicine if they can't go to a collective in their communities?" Swerdlow asked. "Well, they're either going to make long drives to the few cities that will allow it. But most of them are going to start getting their marijuana the old-fashioned way. They're going to start buying it from criminals again."

"At Presto Quality Care, we are the oldest medical marijuana doctors recommendation office here in the Inland Empire," Swerdlow said. "We provide qualified patients with their recommendations to use cannabis under California state law. We essentially make it legal for them to go out and either grow cannabis or to obtain it through medical marijuana collectives or other what we would hope would be legal means."

The case, now before the California Supreme Court, began when the city of Riverside sent a letter to Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center telling them the city's zoning laws prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries.

City officials claim that any use that is prohibited under state or federal law is also prohibited within city limits. But the center's operators say they are a legal business.

They continued to operate, so the city filed a May 2010 complaint. A trial court judge in November 2010 ruled for the city, but the center's operators filed an appeal with the 4th District Appellate Court in Riverside.

An appellate court judge in November 2011 upheld Riverside's use of zoning laws to ban dispensaries, but the case was appealed to the California Supreme Court.

"The Health and Wellness Center is a very unique collective," Swerdlow said. "We call it the most important collective in the state of California because of the current case it's involved in."

A decision will be made in the next few weeks.

(Photo: Rachel Luna, Daily Bulletin)