Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 20, 2010

City Ordinance Imposing Criminal Penalties for Operation of a Medical Marijuana Dispensary is Not Preempted by Federal Law

Qualified Patients Association (QPA) sought a declaratory judgment that the a local ordinance in the City of Anaheim which imposed criminal penalties for the operation of a medical marijuana dispensary, was preempted by state law and federal law. In addressing whether the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) was an unconstitutional amendment to the Compassionate Use Act (CUA)(In California, initiatives cannot be amended by the legislature unless the initiative so authorizes), the court determined that the MMPA was not an unconstitutional amendment, but was rather an act that addressed the general subject matter of the CUA.  The MMPA did not “expand or restrict” the CUA, it amended sections of the Code that addressed the regulation of drugs. This court agreed that the MMPA “‘was designed to implement, not amend the CUA.’” Although the issue of state preemption was deemed not ripe, viewing the complaint and the allegations therein most favorably to the plaintiff, the court concluded that “it appears incongruous at first glance to conclude a city may criminalize as a misdemeanor a particular use of property the state expressly has exempted from ‘criminal liability[.]’” 

Addressing the issue of federal preemption, the court found that the CUA and the MMPA only decriminalized certain uses of medical marijuana for the purpose of state law, and thus there was no attempt or result to override federal law. The Court noted that the CUA and the MMPA do not require the violation of any federal laws and thus cannot be said to be in conflict with the federal marijuana law. Furthermore, the court noted that if the CUA and the MMPA do preempt the City’s ordinance, the City’s compliance with state law would not require any violations of federal law, as the State laws decriminalizing medical marijuana do not require that the City to undertake any conduct that is illegal under federal law, such as owning or operating a medical marijuana distribution facility. Lastly, the appellate court noted that municipalities do not incur aider and abettor liabilities in administering permits in compliance with “the obligations under the state medical marijuana laws.”

The appellate court then addressed obstacle preemption.  Obstacle preemption occurs where the state law “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purpose and objectives of Congress.”  When state law makes the purpose of the federal act so that it cannot be accomplished, state law must yield to federal law.  The set of circumstances in the current case do not amount to such an obstacle, the appellate court reasoned, since the Controlled Substance Abuse Act was created by Congress to combat recreational drug use and the CUA and MMPA attempt to effectuate that purpose as well, rather than frustrate it. Also, the appellate court stated that the California is not precluding the accomplishment of the goals of the federal act since the state law does not affect actors responsible for the implantation, or carrying out, of federal law. 

Qualified Patients Association v. Anaheim, No. G040077 (Cal. Ct. App., 4th Dist., Div 3, Aug. 18, 2010)

The opinion can be accessed at:  

For an article on the land use aspects of medical marijuana, see:

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