Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Ethical Considerations for Cities

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana. In California, more than 750,000 people have doctors' recommendations to use the drug; in Colorado, the number is more than 88,000. Marijuana use of any kind remains a federal crime although the Obama administration has declined to prosecute medical users.

To meet this medical need (or some would say exploit this opening), medical marijuana dispensaries have sprung up in significant numbers; in California, estimates range from 500-1,000. For city governments, the dispensaries pose a number of ethical challenges:

1. Does local government have an obligation to approve dispensaries simply because California law allows them to sell marijuana for medical use? Or can you use the federal law making sale and use of marijuana illegal as your rationale for an outright prohibition of these businesses? What if the majority of the community opposes this type of business in your city?

2. Local government has a right and obligation to make land use decisions in approving liquor stores, group homes, and other controversial projects. Is there any difference between making those determinations and deciding where to allow a dispensary?

3. Cities charge for a variety of permits, including use permits for certain types of businesses. Pharmacies do not pay additional fees to dispense prescription drugs. Is it "selective taxation" if cities assess special fees for medical marijuana dispensaries? Could that appear to be an unfair deterrent? Would some see this as a valuable source of revenue in cash-strapped jurisdictions?

4. Does local government have an obligation to regulate the quality or labeling of the products being sold? Should there be a background check to ensure the vendors have no criminal record?

5. Local government keeps a close eye on businesses such as massage parlors to ensure the qualifications of the providers and make sure no illegal activity occurs. What obligation, if any, does the city have to prevent fraudulent prescriptions or regulate the doctors who write medical marijuana prescriptions?

6. If the city publishes a newspaper or guide to the Art and Wine Festival that is underwritten by advertising, can it refuse to run ads for medical marijuana dispensaries?

February 2012


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