LOS ANGELES — A Southern California city that won a recent case in which the state Supreme Court ruled local municipalities can ban medical marijuana dispensaries is taking its efforts one step further by going after delivery services.
Earlier this week, the Riverside City Council approved an emergency ban to ensure existing mobile marijuana businesses or clinics that have closed aren't trying to skirt local law.
The city's decision is the latest blow to the medical marijuana industry which has thrived in California for years but has been decimated by an ongoing crackdown by the federal government and the effects from the ruling that has empowered cities and counties to get rid of storefront dispensaries.
Riverside officials decided to amend an ordinance because it didn't include mobile pot operations. The number of delivery services that advertise and operate within 20 miles of Riverside has grown from more than 30 to about 50 since the state Supreme Court ruling, according to a city report.
Attorney James DeAguilera, who represents about 15 marijuana collectives that operate in Riverside, doesn't believe the City Council can ban delivery services, let alone enforce the ordinance.
"Would Riverside set up checkpoints all around the city and have police confiscate marijuana?" DeAguilera asked. "It doesn't make a lot of sense."
Riverside was among dozens of cities that had unsuccessfully implemented bans because they were met with lawsuits until last month's ruling by the state's highest court. Since then, those cities have been closing pot shops.
About 200 municipalities in California have banned retail pot sales, according to estimates from the national medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, while more than 40 have laws allowing dispensaries.
Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the organization, said Riverside is taking the wrong approach with its ban.
"Banning all kinds of distribution and allowing patients to cultivate themselves is severely restricting when it comes to people who don't have the skill or money to cultivate," Hermes said. "Perhaps this is a new area that will result in litigation."
Hundreds of door-to-door pot businesses are estimated to operate in California. Critics say delivery services attract crime because drivers can be targets for armed robbers who seek cash and drugs.
Last year, a civil grand jury report in San Luis Obispo County noted the delivery services created a "gray market" that local government was ignoring. As a result, the city of Arroyo Grande decided to prohibit mobile medical marijuana.
State law doesn't specifically mention delivery services but advocates believe the businesses are allowed if they work under the cooperative or collective model. However, no agency is regulating the delivery services and some legal experts believe Riverside's decision will lead to more litigation.
"Can you stop commerce that is crossing jurisdictional lines?" asked Marsha Cohen, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "It's a constant pushing of the legal envelope. Who knows where it will end."
It's been rough waters for the medical marijuana industry in the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Many dispensaries have been targeted by federal authorities for nearly two years.
More than 100 pot clinics across Los Angeles County received warning letters this week from the government to shut down as part of a coordinated effort by the state's four federal prosecutors. Many of the more than 600 pot shops in the seven-county Central District of California have closed, authorities said.
With the widespread enforcement combined with no longer permitting delivery services, the result could mean those who need medical marijuana will have to look far and wide, possibly at great expense, to get their medicine.
"I think inevitably areas that are undergoing law enforcement measures will definitely be forced to travel longer distances to get their medicine or they will go to the illicit market or more tragically do without," Hermes said.
Other observers believe that other cities that have taken a hard-line against dispensaries will follow Riverside's lead.
"They recognize the delivery system is an end-around on the law and if cities are resolute to ban marijuana sales in their city, it would be a wise step to take," said John McGinness, a former Sacramento County sheriff and consultant for the California Peace Officers' Association.
"It could be an interesting opportunity for an enforcement effort," he added.
Information from: The Press-Enterprise, http://www.pe.com