Federal Regulation of Marijuana Does Not Preempt California's Decision to Decriminalize Medical Marijuana Under State Law

September 14, 2010 | Bulletin No. 949947.1

In Qualified Patients Association v. City of Anaheim, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 4 Dist., August 18, 2010), a California court of appeal considered whether federal regulation of marijuana pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act preempts California’s decriminalization of “specific marijuana activities” pursuant to the Compassionate Use Act (“CUA”) and the Medical Marijuana Program Act (“MMPA”). The court of appeal held that the federal law does not preempt California’s decision to decriminalize certain activities related to medical marijuana.


The City of Anaheim ("City") passed an ordinance that provides the following: "It shall be unlawful for any person or entity to own, manage, conduct, or operate any Medical Marijuana Dispensary or to participate as an employee, contractor, agent or volunteer, or in any other manner or capacity, in any Medical Marijuana Dispensary in the City of Anaheim." A dispensary is defined as a location or facility where medical marijuana is distributed or made available by or to three or more qualified patients, persons with identification cards, or primary caregivers. A violation of the ordinance is a misdemeanor.

The Qualified Patients Association ("QPA") sought a declaratory judgment that City's ordinance was preempted by the CUA and the MMPA and also violates the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The trial court instead held that the federal Controlled Substances Act preempts California's decriminalization of certain activities related to medical marijuana. The trial court also concluded that QPA failed to state a cause of action under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.


The CUA was “designed to allow a qualified patient and his or her primary caregiver to possess and cultivate marijuana for the patient’s personal use despite the penal laws that outlaw these two acts for all others.” The CUA, however, “did not alter the other statutory prohibitions related to marijuana, including those that bar the transportation, possession for sale, and sale of marijuana.” The MMPA provides immunity from arrest for certain marijuana-related offenses to patients and their primary caregivers who take part in a voluntary identification program. The court of appeal agreed with previous decisions holding that the MMPA does not unconstitutionally amend the CUA.

QPA asked the trial court to issue a preliminary injunction restraining enforcement of City’s ordinance on the ground that the ordinance is preempted by state law. However, the court of appeal held that the decision of whether state law preempts the ordinance was not properly before it because this issue was not ruled on by the trial court. The only issue properly before the court of appeal was the issue of whether federal regulation of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act preempts the CUA and the MMPA. The court stated, “Whether the MMPA bars local governments from using nuisance abatement law and penal legislation to prohibit the use of property for medical marijuana purposes remains to be determined.”

The court held that the federal Controlled Substances Act does not preempt the CUA or the MMPA. The CSA prohibits the possession of marijuana, even for medical uses. The court explained that “California’s decision in the CUA and the MMPA to decriminalize for purposes of state law certain conduct related to medical marijuana does nothing to ‘override’ or attempt to override federal law, which remains in force.” The court found that “because the CUA and the MMPA do not mandate conduct that federal law prohibits, nor pose an obstacle to federal enforcement of federal law, the enactments’ decriminalization provisions are not preempted by federal law.”

The regulation of state criminal sanctions for possession of drugs and the regulation of medical practices are historically matters involving state police power. Therefore, federal preemption in these areas must be interpreted narrowly. The court found none of the four types of federal preemption (express, conflict, obstacle, and field) apply here.

The court of appeal, however, upheld the trial court’s ruling that QPA failed to state a claim under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. By its own terms, this Act expressly applies to “business establishments.” The court of appeal stated it saw “no room for its application to the [C]ity’s legislative action here.”


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Mona G. Ebrahimi | 916.321.4500