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Court Rules San Diego Marijuana Law Required More Analysis

A jar of medical marijuana sits on a table at The Grove in La Mesa, Oct. 18, ...

Credit: Matt Hoffman/KPBS

Above: A jar of medical marijuana sits on a table at The Grove in La Mesa, Oct. 18, 2018.

San Diego failed to adequately analyze the potential environmental impacts of its marijuana dispensary law, the California Supreme Court ruled in a decision expected to limit the discretion of local governments across the state involving a range of actions.

The ruling came Monday in a lawsuit filed after the city declared its 2014 pot law didn't require any environmental analysis.

However, the court ruled unanimously that San Diego should have studied whether allowing dispensaries might result in construction of new buildings or change citywide vehicle traffic patterns, the Union-Tribune reported.

The impact of the ruling on many of the city's 23 approved dispensaries wasn't immediately clear, the newspaper said.

Local governments must analyze reasonably foreseeable changes that proposed laws or zoning changes would have on the environment — even if the changes would be indirect, the opinion said.

City Attorney Mara Elliott's office declined to comment on the 41-page ruling, which overturned a 4th District Court of Appeal decision in 2016 that favored the city.

"We will study this opinion to determine its potential impacts on city operations," spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik said.

Lawyer Jamie Thomas Hall, who filed the lawsuit against San Diego, said the ruling would force the two-thirds of California cities that don't allow marijuana dispensaries to conduct more rigorous environmental reviews if they eventually consider allowing such businesses.

Hall said the ruling also limits the ability of cities to streamline state environmental laws to boost housing construction amid an ongoing affordability crisis.

"I think cities have been pushing the envelope of what is possible," Hall told the newspaper.

San Diego has passed a series of recent housing reforms, including one that gives density bonuses to housing developers. Another law, approved in March, allows developers to build large housing projects in transit areas with no parking spaces.

The city adopted the reforms without conducting rigorous environmental reviews on potential impacts, whether direct or indirect, the newspaper said.

"It is a precedent-setting ruling," Murtaza Baxamusa of the San Diego Building and Construction Trades, a powerful labor union, said of the court decision.

"Cities are essentially classifying entire city actions as categorically exempt without looking at whether there are any indirect, foreseeable impacts," he said. "The court said the impacts could be negligible, but the fact that the city didn't even look at it is a problem."

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