In a ruling that will leave California's patchwork approach to medical marijuana dispensary regulation in place, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that local governments can ban dispensaries from operating within their jurisdictions. For patients, that means access to medical marijuana at dispensaries will depend on the political currents in their city or county.
[image:1 align:left]The decision likely means that cities and counties that had been holding off on banning dispensaries will now take steps to do so. It will also increase pressure on the state legislature to come up with a means of statewide medical marijuana regulation, something it is working on right now.
The case was City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, Inc., in which Inland Empire sued the city after Riverside using its zoning power to declare that dispensaries were nuisances and ordered them shut down. Inland Empire went to court to block the city from forcing it to close.
The decision was eagerly -- and anxiously -- awaited by all sides. Cases on local bans had been percolating through the state court system for several years, with state appeals courts splitting on the issue. An appeals court had earlier sided with the city of Riverside, but a trial court last summer held that Riverside County could not ban dispensaries, and an appeals court in Southern California had struck down Los Angeles County's ban on dispensaries.
The move by the city of Riverside was part of a broader counter-offensive against the proliferation of dispensaries after the Obama administration signaled in 2009 that it would take a largely hands-off approach. According to the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, more than 200 cities or counties in the state have since moved to ban dispensaries. That move toward local bans has since slowed, in part because of uncertainty over their legality and in part because the federal offensive since the Obama administration shifted gears in the fall of 2011 has driven hundreds of dispensaries out of business.
Patient and industry advocates had argued that allowing localities to ban dispensaries ran counter to the intent of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. The law called for making medical marijuana accessible to people with doctors' recommendations for its use. But the state's high court sided with the localities.
"The issue in this case is whether California's medical marijuana statutes preempt a local ban on facilities that distribute medical marijuana. We conclude they do not," wrote Justice Marvin Baxter for a unanimous court. "The CUA and the MMP [state medical marijuana laws] do not expressly or impliedly preempt Riverside's zoning provisions declaring a medical marijuana dispensary, as therein defined, to be a prohibited use, and a public nuisance, anywhere within the city limits."
"While the California Supreme Court ruling ignores the needs of thousands of patients across the state, it simply maintains the status quo," said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access, which filed an amicus 'friend of the court' brief in the case. "Notably, the high court deferred to the state legislature to establish a clearer regulatory system for the distribution of medical marijuana, which advocates and state officials are currently working on."
"There is nothing surprising about this; it affirms the status quo," said Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML. "I've been following the court cases and reading the state constitution, and it seems pretty clear that local governments have broad authority under California law."
"Today's decision allowing localities to ban will likely lead to reduced patient access in California unless the state finally steps up to provide regulatory oversight and guidance," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The good news though is that this problem is fixable. It is time for the state legislature to enact state-wide medical marijuana oversight and regulation that both protects patient access and eases the burden on localities to deal with this issue on their own. Localities will stop enacting bans once the state has stepped up and assumed its responsibility to regulate."
"We're hoping that we can fix this by having some sort of state regulation system where people have access wherever they live in the state, if not by local dispensaries, then at least by some sort of delivery service," Gieringer said. "I think they're trying very hard to do something this year. Remember, last year, the Assembly passed a regulation bill and the Senate came very close, and now we have the leader of the state Senate supporting the same concept, so I think the prospects are pretty good for action."
The statewide medical marijuana regulation bills this year are Assembly Bill 473, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), and Senate Bill 439, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Both bills have passed their first committee votes and are supported by a broad coalition of patients, dispensaries, and law enforcement groups.
But until and unless statewide regulation is passed in Sacramento, the battle over patient access to dispensaries is now going to be fought in city council chambers and county supervisor meeting rooms in cities and counties across the state. That is going to mean differential access to medical marijuana depending on the political complexion of the localities where patients reside.
Idaho is officially not a marijuana-friendly state. Although it is bordered on most sides by medical marijuana states (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Montana), it so far refuses to accept the medicinal use of the herb. And even though one of those states (Washington) has legalized marijuana and two others (Nevada and Oregon) have decriminalized it, Idaho remains firmly grounded in 20th Century attitudes toward the plant. The state legislature this year took the time to approve a non-binding resolution noting its opposition to marijuana legalization.
[image:1 align:right]But that doesn't mean there aren't reformers in the Gem State. There have been sporadic local marijuana legalization efforts in past years, and this year, medical marijuana supporters are in the midst of signature-gathering campaign to put an initiative on the ballot.
That campaign is led by Compassionate Idaho, some of whose most stalwart and publicly visible members are Lindsey and Josh Rinehart and Sarah Caldwell. But with an incident that began while Caldwell and the Rineharts were away on a retreat, the trio are learning a harsh lesson in hardball pot politics. When they got back home, their kids were gone, and the police and child social services had them.
According to Boise Police, who released a statement on the matter as controversy grew, on April 23, they were contacted by a local school official about a child who had apparently eaten marijuana and fallen ill. Police "learned from witnesses" that the supposed marijuana supposedly came from the Rinehart residence, and, "concerned for the safety of children at the residence," they went there and found a baby sitter caring for the Rinehart and Caldwell children.
Police persuaded the baby sitter to let them search the residence and "found drug paraphernalia, items commonly used to smoke marijuana, and a quantity of a substance that appeared to be marijuana in locations inside the house accessible to the children." Police at the scene then contacted both narcotics investigators and the department's Special Victims Unit.
(Rinehart, a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer, said she indeed had medical marijuana at home, but that she had a small amount and a pipe on a dresser in her bedroom, a larger amount of trim locked away in a freezer, and some marijuana tincture in a bottle in a kitchen cabinet atop her refrigerator.)
"Based on the fact that illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia were located in an area that appeared to be commonly used by the children in the residence and the fact that one child had already become ill from ingesting what he assumed was marijuana, and the inability to contact the children's parents, detectives made the decision to contact Idaho Health and Welfare officials and place the children in imminent danger, meaning they were placed in the protective custody of the state until it can be determined they are in a safe environment," the statement said.
At this point, it is unclear whether whatever made the school child sick was marijuana. It is equally unclear that any marijuana came from the Rinehart residence. What is clear is that both the Rineharts and Sarah Campbell are up-front, in-your-face medical marijuana patients and activists, and that their children were being subjected to the tender mercies of the state.
Sarah Caldwell has had her kids returned to her -- it was not her child who is suspected of providing the suspected marijuana -- but the Rineharts are still fighting to get their kids returned.
"My sons were not involved," Caldwell said. "They were at the house the police searched, the police decided my kids were in 'imminent danger,' and it took three days to get them back."
While the two boys and the Rinehart kids were held at the same foster home, providing them with the small comfort of being with friends, Caldwell said her younger son was traumatized.
"My six-year-old is autistic," she explained. "I noticed when he came home, he started packing his favorite toys. I asked him why and he said, 'In case the police make me go away again.' He doesn't understand why," Caldwell said, her voice breaking.
While Caldwell has her children at home again, both she and the Rineharts are going to have to comply with the requirements of the child welfare system to ensure that their children can return to their old lives. But, Lindsey Rinehart said, Child Protective Services is moving more quickly than usual in her case.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]Normally, Child Protective Services requires parents to meet with them at the department three times, then allows them to have three visits with their children in the community, then inspects the home to ensure a safe environment is being provided, and only then considers returning the kids, most likely with the added provision that the parents must undergo parenting and drug education classes. But when the Chronicle last spoke to Rinehart Saturday, she was in the middle of a home visit with her kids -- one that ends Sunday morning.
"They seem to be expediting the process because they realize they messed up," she said. The state taking her kids wasn't doing them any favors, she added.
"My oldest son now will only talk if you ask him really specific questions, and my younger one is acting out," she said. "He is upset and argumentative; he has a hard time vocalizing things," she said of her six-year-old. "I told him I had to go to the store, and he freaked out; he didn't want me to leave him. He's reacting like I've never seen before. He was a happy kid; now he's mad and confused. He doesn't understand what's going on."
The older Rinehart son is having issues, too, she said.
"He's mad. Both of the kids have been educated about my medicine, so they know this is wrong," the multiple sclerosis sufferer explained. "They're mad that they were taken away because mommy had her medicine. I'm trying to comfort them as best as I can. They just know that somebody took them away, and now I have to explain that they have to go back to foster care tomorrow," Rinehart said, her voice trembling.
Both the Rineharts and Sarah Caldwell suspect they were set up.
"I'm the director of Compassionate Idaho. Everybody knows who I am. I'm on the news at least once a month," said Rinehart. "We had just done the Hemp Fest in Moscow and signature-gathering in five towns. The police knew what they were looking for, and they knew where to look without anyone telling them. Those kids on the playground didn't know where to look. There were kids from several other families involved in that playground incident, but we think the police got who they wanted."
"I do think they were targeting us," Caldwell agreed. "That incident at the school was just an excuse for them to try to get us."
"This has got me fired up," Caldwell said. "They took my children to try to keep me focused on getting my kids back so I wouldn't do my activism, but I'm not going to stop."
The use of children as pawns in the marijuana culture wars is shocking and distressing, but nothing new, said Keith Stroup, founder and currently counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
"We get calls three or four times a week from people who have lost custody of their children because they tested positive at birth or in a situation where parents are feuding over custody," Stroup said. "One will say 'My spouse smokes marijuana and is thus not a fit parent,' and once that child welfare issue is raised, it's a totally separate matter from the criminal justice system. Even if no one is proposing to arrest the parent, this is far more damaging and destructive to the family."
That's at least in part because once child welfare has its clutches on you, it doesn't want to let go, and it typically has an attitude toward marijuana use that is reminiscent of Reefer Madness, Stroup said.
"They can require that you take parenting and drug education courses right out of the 1950s," he said. "It's a worthless routine, but you have to do it, you have to pay hundreds of dollars to do it, and you can't get your kids back until you do it. It doesn't matter how nice or good a parent you are or how well-intentioned you are, once you get caught up in this, you are in for a bad time."
NORML is doing what it can to assist the Idaho activists, Stroup said, adding some words of advice for other marijuana-using parents, especially (but not only) in places where attitudes toward the herb are hide-bound and hardened.
"If you're in a place like Idaho and you're a young parent, never smoke in front of your kids, so if that issue ever arises, you can make sure nobody can say you were smoking marijuana and kids were playing in the same room," he counseled. "You have to be able to demonstrate convincingly that you are providing a safe and secure place for your kids. In places like Idaho, you could lose custody over your kids for something many of us in many parts of the country take for granted."
Getting the kids back is only part of the problem for the Rineharts. Idaho treats even small-time pot possession seriously -- it's one of those place where people still actually do get jail time for it -- and the couple is facing possible felony charges for possessing more than an ounce of trim.
[image:3 align:right caption:true]"I'm living in an ongoing panic attack," said Lindsey Rinehart. "They update their warrants every five hours, so I check in frequently, and first thing in the morning. Because of my illness, I can't handle physical pressure very well, and I'm afraid they could hurt me when arresting me, so my lawyer has asked that if they do charge me, they just cite me."
All the stress isn't helping, and now, Rinehart can't have her medicine, either.
"I have prescribed meds to suppress my immune system, but those make me really sick. With cannabis, I only had to take it every other day," she explained. "Now, I have to take it every day, and it's so dangerous we have to regularly check my heart, liver, kidney, and eye function. And if I have pain, I'll have to go back to hydrocodone. I'll be going back on those meds I had been able to taper down from with cannabis."
But despite the trials and tribulations, neither the Rineharts nor Sarah Caldwell have been cowed, and their travails have energized supporters as well.
"People are really mad about this and are getting involved," said Rinehart. "We even have people reaching out to help fund Compassionate Idaho.
"People are coming out of the woodwork after hearing our kids got taken because of our activism," said Caldwell. "People are saying they want to help. Education is key here -- a lot of people here believe the Reefer Madness, but this is a non-toxic plant; it can't hurt you."
"The bigger picture is that we don't want this to happen to more families," said Rinehart.
"We're getting more calls than we ever did about child custody," Stroup reiterated. "There are still people being seriously damaged from what's left of marijuana prohibition. Few go to jail for marijuana anymore, but many lose custody of their kids. These repercussions may be more subtle, but they are not insignificant."
The Rineharts and Sarah Caldwell still have to deal with Child Protective Services, and the Rineharts are still waiting to see if they will face criminal marijuana and child endangerment charges. But in the meantime, there are 55,000 signatures to be gathered to get medical marijuana on the ballot and start changing Idaho's reactionary response to marijuana.