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The fight to keep medical marijuana dispensaries open in many California communities has gotten even tougher.

The California Supreme Court decided unanimously in May to let local governments use zoning ordinances to ban dispensaries within their borders. The ruling makes it possible for hundreds of towns, cities and counties across the state to completely shut the doors on legal marijuana businesses.

The decision was intended to clarify the rules that govern zoning bans on dispensaries, but it could deprive thousands of legitimate patients of needed medication, or force some of them to drive hundreds of miles to get it. Many communities have attempted to close all their dispensaries to combat the negative effects of a few outlets that operate outside the law.

Indeed, the trend appears to be toward banning dispensaries entirely rather than limiting and regulating them, since limitations on dispensaries have led to lawsuits in many areas. So far, nearly 200 towns and cities, plus 20 of the state’s 58 counties, have outright barred legal dispensaries.

The numbers may continue to climb, as any municipalities waiting for clarification will now be able to enact new zoning rules. Until this ruling, it was possible for many dispensaries to ignore unfriendly zoning regulations in some cities. Now, however, it will be easier to subject the owners of these dispensaries to injunctions, fines and jail time.

Dispensary supporters argued the state law legalizing medical pot, passed by voters in 1996, should prevent municipalities from zoning marijuana businesses out of existence. But the court held that because the law didn’t explicitly say as much, zoning limitations are OK.

Efforts to ban medical marijuana have been stronger in some parts of the state than others, and the ruling will likely strengthen that disparity. Conservative areas, especially the Central Valley and Northern California, will likely become even more inhospitable to dispensaries, leaving only liberal strongholds such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, to serve the needs of marijuana patients – often inadequately.

Those cities are reacting to increased use of medical marijuana with tight, sometimes arcane regulation. Los Angeles prohibited dispensaries in the city last year, only to overturn the ban three months later in the face of a voter referendum that would almost certainly have had the same effect.

Up next for the city is a referendum to enact new regulations. Dispensaries in unincorporated Los Angeles County, meanwhile, will be banned; the county outlawed them in 2010, but that regulation was struck down by an appeals court. The Supreme Court decision overturns that ruling.

In San Francisco, where residents strongly favor dispensaries, the city has enacted strict rules barring them in most neighborhoods. Neighboring Oakland also regulates medical marijuana outlets by ordinance, as do about 40 other cities and 10 counties.

Overall, the ruling by the California Supreme Court spells more trouble for the state’s medical marijuana industry and its many patients. Advocates intend to continue fighting, and some dispensary owners may stay open in defiance of the rules, but for the time being, the struggle has become that much more difficult.

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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