Unincorporated land refers to a geographic location that lacks municipal organization, meaning the city or town does not have its own municipal services or municipal code/ordinances. At first glance, an unincorporated area may appear to be a regular city, but it is not; it is more of a community or town. Unincorporated areas are often governed by a town council in conjunction with a county level board of supervisors. Some unincorporated cities or towns are well organized, having neighborhood committees, community centers, neighborhood watch programs, historical societies, country clubs, and the like. The citizens of these towns often take great pride in their community. For example, this Spring I attended a Public Comment Board of Supervisor’s meeting in Marin County, CA which had been called for public comment on a medical marijuana dispensary ordinance the Board was preparing to enact. The ordinance provided for up to three dispensaries in unincorporated areas of Marin County. Citizens from the unincorporated areas came to give comment as did others in the community.

It is important to understand that Medical marijuana dispensary businesses / collectives are governed not only by state law, but by the local ordinances or municipal codes drafted by the administrative bodies of the city in which they are located; unless they are in unincorporated areas of a county. In some cases, local ordinances permit cannabis businesses to exist in certain zones of the city. In other cases local ordinances restrict dispensaries or other cannabis outlet businesses, including mobile services. Zoning ordinances are used to determine how land is designated for use in the city. For example, a certain zone may be set aside for residential use or industrial use; this is part of the city plan. An unincorporated area of a city may not have zoning ordinances per say, but the town council may still be on the watch for businesses that do not fit in the community and which may be in violation of land use regulations at a county level. If a dispensary is found by members of the town to be a nuisance, for example, the town council still could seek injunctive relief under the authority of county level land use regulations, even if the dispensary or collective is operating in compliance with state law. Some counties do not have laws that prohibit medical marijuana businesses for unincorporated areas, but some do; so research this detail carefully, before investing the time and money to set up shop.

Los Angeles County, for example, has a general land use plan that do not permit medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in unincorporated areas. Thus, in order to legally do business in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles, one would have to obtain a conditional use permit or license to do so.

As California moves closer to enacting regulations, (hopefully in 2015), these regulations will include provisions for state licensing of medical marijuana businesses. As part of the licensing procedure, business owners will have to show that they have been permitted to operate in the city or unincorporated area where they do business, or that there is no prohibition based on a land use ordinance or general or master land use plan for them to do business at a certain location. Those businesses not in compliance will likely be unable to obtain a state license to do business. Therefore, it is advisable to make certain your business is legally located if you intend to progress in the medical marijuana industry of the future.

This information is not meant to be construed as legal advice for any person or entity as each legal question is unique. For specific advice, please contact our office for a consultation.