California Supreme Court rules San Diego should have considered environmental impact of marijuana zoning ordinance
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California Supreme Court rules San Diego should have considered environmental impact of marijuana zoning ordinance

The Supreme Court of California ruled Monday that the City of San Diego improperly failed to consider the environmental impact of its new zoning ordinance limiting the creation of marijuana dispensaries.

San Diego Ordinance O-20356, put forward by the city council in 2014, sought to impose a number of limitations on where marijuana dispensaries could legally be established. The ordinance restricted marijuana dispensaries to certain types of commercial or industrial zones. The ordinance limited any given city district to no more than four dispensaries, which could not be placed within 1000 feet of “sensitive areas,” such as parks and schools, or within 100 feet of residential zones. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Section 21065 requires environmental impact studies for any project that “(1) is undertaken or funded by, or subject to the approval of a public agency and (2) may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” The city found that the zoning ordinance in question did not fit this definition of a project and declined to conduct an environmental impact study which led to this lawsuit.

The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, a civil rights organization fighting for the rights and safe access of medical marijuana patients, challenged this suit arguing that the zoning ordinance did fall under CEQA. Specifically, they argued that the city failed to account for various environmental impacts, including the necessity of patients having to drive across the city for their medical marijuana, the potential impact of patients undertaking home growth, and the potential for the closing of existing dispensaries along with increased pressure to develop legal ones.

The trial court and the Court of Appeal initially agreed with the city that the zoning ordinance did not fall under CEQA, but the Supreme Court reversed. The Supreme Court ultimately held that while not all zoning ordinances are projects for the purposes of CEQA as a matter of law under CEQA Section 21080, this ordinance falls within Section 21065 and did merit an environmental study. The court did note, however, that such an environmental study may still result in the ordinance being legal if the environmental impact is sufficiently minimal. For now, legal dispensaries will have to wait while the environmental impact of the ordinance is reviewed.