A bill that would for the first time bring statewide regulation to California's chaotic medical marijuana industry passed the Assembly Thursday. The legislation, Assembly Bill 2312, barely passed on a 41-29 vote, with 41 votes being the minimum required to move the legislation to the Senate before a Friday deadline.
Pushed by patients, dispensaries, and advocates organized into the broad-based coalition Californians to Regulate Medical Marijuana (CRMM) and sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill would create a nine-member commission to come up with regulations to govern medical marijuana enterprises. Under California's current medical marijuana laws, there is no statewide regulation, leaving a patchwork quilt of often conflicting local approaches to the issue.
The result has been uneven implementation of the law, with some areas flooded with unregulated dispensaries, while others ban their operation, leaving patients to grow their own or seek it out on the black market. The lack of state regulation has also left an opening for recalcitrant prosecutors and law enforcement officials to criminally prosecute dispensary operators and growers under differing interpretations of the state's laws. And it has left an opening for federal prosecutor and the DEA to swoop in, claiming the unregulated dispensaries are little more than "pot shops."
In the wake of the lack of clarity at the state level, counties and municipalities across the state have considered or enacted their own regulatory schemes or outright bans. The result is a situation where what is tolerated on one side of a suburban highway may be prosecuted on the other side.
In a sop to medical marijuana opponents, Ammiano accepted an amendment that would allow localities to continue to ban dispensaries. The bill originally would have required that local governments allow at least one dispensary for every 50,000 residents unless voters in a local initiative decided otherwise. Now, city or county elected officials could make that decision. That means even with statewide regulations, the patchwork quilt effect could remain.
But the language was necessary to win enough votes among Democrats to get the bill passed. No Republicans voted for it.
"The people of California, the attorney general and even law enforcement and patients, all want a clear set of rules to regulate an industry that has been in existence since 1996," Ammiano said, noting broad support for medical marijuana in the state. "Cartels and other organized crime thrive in unregulated markets. Today's vote was significant because it represents a considerable shift that the legislature is now willing to take responsibility for the effective regulation of medical cannabis in California. With the continuing federal crackdown, we simply cannot afford to continue keeping our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is fine."
Since last fall, when federal prosecutors in the state announced their crackdown, the DEA has raided numerous dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, including Oaksterdam University. In the past year, hundreds of dispensaries have shuttered their doors, in part because of the fear of federal prosecution and in part because of local moves against them.
Hostility to medical marijuana was evident in the Assembly debate before the bill passed, with some members continuing to deny that it has any medical utility.
Medical marijuana is "a phrase that is meaningless," said Assemblywoman Linda Halderman (R-Fresno), a doctor and surgeon. The discussion about it is really a debate over "whether people should be able to legally get high," she said.
Assemblyman Dan Wagner (R-Irvine) complained about the make-up of the bill's Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement, which would include two patients, an industry representative, and a doctor familiar with medical marijuana among its nine representatives.
"Something smells when you stack the deck like that, and we know what that smell is," he said.
But Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) said it was time to get real. "What it does is begin the process of regulation of something that is happening anyway," she said.
"Some people want to preserve the chaos and confusion to say that medical marijuana has failed or is a sham," Ammiano said during the debate in response to Republican critics.
The bill was modeled after an initiative crafted by CRMM last winter after the federal crackdown began. The group, which includes the core of the team behind 2010's Proposition 19 effort, briefly tried to get the measure on the ballot this year before shifting gears to work with Ammiano in trying to get it passed through the legislature after realizing it did not have sufficient funding for a costly signature-gathering effort.
CRMM pronounced itself pleased with the bill's progress so far.
"More than 15 years after Californians passed Proposition 215, patients are still in need of a commonsense approach to the production and distribution of medical marijuana," said Don Duncan, California Director with Americans for Safe Access, one of the member organizations of CRMM. "We applaud the Assembly for taking leadership on statewide regulations and we hope the state Senate also does the right thing by addressing medical marijuana as a public health issue."
Now, it's on to the Senate. California could still end up with a state-regulated medical marijuana industry this year.