Nearly two decades after California established a medical marijuana program, the patchwork of local regulations on the billion-dollar industry is often distilled to just two words: Wild West.
Supporters and critics alike use the same description, but year after year in the Legislature, attempts to enact statewide controls on medical marijuana cultivation and sales fall through.
Now that sophisticated political operators are crafting a 2016 measure to legalize pot, dispensary and law enforcement groups who want a regulatory framework for medical cannabis believe it’s time to settle the issue.
Robert Raich, an Oakland-based attorney who specializes in medical marijuana law, said if California joins Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon in legalizing recreational weed, it will only complicate the already-chaotic system.
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“There has been plenty of desire to see some kind of (medical) state legislation passed,” he said. “This year, however, that desire is more palpable.”
Since voters agreed to allow use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, how to regulate it has vexed many city and county officials. Adding to their problems is that marijuana possession and sales remain illegal under federal law. While some localities allow patients and providers to grow and dispense medical marijuana, others have turned to zoning and other local laws to enforce outright bans on the product.
Conflicting priorities from interests looking to protect their role in the system have contributed to the legislative gridlock. At stake for many this year is retaining – and possibly expanding – their foothold in an industry that faces major change.
Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, said if state voters move next year to create a newly decriminalized market with no regulations to absorb it, the black market would be able to expand quickly. That, “in turn, will create a public safety nightmare,” he said.
Medical marijuana advocates have increased their presence at the Capitol of late, holding fundraisers at local haunts and mingling with dignitaries.
During a lobbying day last week, Assemblyman Rob Bonta was greeted with a standing ovation for carrying a medical pot bill favored by dispensaries. After taking stock of the welcome, Bonta, D-Alameda, framed the debate in terms of public health, small business and “the future of the state of California.”
“We think that a regulatory regime is necessary today,” he said. “It was necessary yesterday, and many years before. And it’s time that we do it.”
Last year’s session marked the closest lawmakers have come to reaching a compromise. A police-backed measure by former Sen. Lou Correa ultimately was held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Senate Bill 1262, which initially competed with an industry-supported effort by then-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, would have created an oversight division within the Department of Consumer Affairs. It was opposed by Ammiano and most medical marijuana groups, who argued it was too restrictive and costly.
When his bill stalled, Correa blamed “folks that want to preserve the Wild, Wild West ... and operate without any regulation or oversight.”
Both sides will get another opportunity to coalesce around a bill. On Thursday, the Assembly merged competing measures in an effort to craft legislation satisfactory to marijuana growers, dispensary operators, law enforcement and local government.
Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, had been focused on creating the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation within the Department of Consumer Affairs. Bonta sought to put licensing and regulation under multiple agencies, including Alcohol and Beverage Control, Public Health and Food and Agriculture.
John Lovell, a senior policy adviser to the California Police Chiefs Association, said the group strongly opposes the latter approach. He likened it to the Chicago Cubs baseball teams in 1961 and 1962, which operated with no manager and were led by an eight-man “college of coaches.”
In 1962, “the only team that did worse was the New York Mets, and it was their first season,” he said.
Cooley said the compromise bill, Assembly Bill 266, would centralize the framework and terminology for regulation under one agency, which would then consult with other expert divisions.
“We feel it reflects the interests in a fair way, but that’s not to say it won’t elicit further conversation,” he said.
Police officials and others want to preserve local control over the marijuana industry, and they object to oversight by Alcohol and Beverage Control.
Much of law enforcement is not expected to support any measure to legalize recreational pot. Because initiatives are crafted by advocates, Lovell said, “there will be provisions that cause some concern.”
There’s no telling what effect passage – or failure – of a state bill will have on a statewide campaign to legalize weed.
A month before voters rejected the last statewide pot legalization effort, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that lessened the penalty for people found with a small amount of marijuana to an infraction from a misdemeanor.
Some saw the move by Schwarzenegger, who opposed November 2010’s Proposition 19, as taking some of the wind out of the campaign’s sails.
Looking to 2016, critics of recreational pot could use passage of a new law to argue during a campaign that the state recently enacted regulations and should be given time to see them take hold.
Meanwhile, proponents of a legalization initiative could use the unregulated market to assert that a measure would bring clarity to the mess of local rules.
Bonta stressed that the legislative push is “independent of (the ballot measure), but not naive about that.” He said part of the possible move to embrace regulation can be traced to newer lawmakers like himself who are allowed to serve more time under new term-limit rules.
“I and many of my colleagues think that this is something that should be done through legislation ... where you really need to get into the weeds and the nuances,” he said. Propositions, on the other hand, don’t “lend themselves to deep study of the issues.”
Early lobbying efforts have extended to Republicans, some of whom voted to support regulation last year. Meeting with members ahead of Bonta’s appearance, Bradley said he’s been in talks with conservative lawmakers from rural counties who favor guidelines.
“It’s not about debating whether we like (marijuana) or not,” he instructed. “Half the people who support this don’t like it. And that’s why we need it.”