UPDATE: The California medical marijuana bills have been released. The East Bay Express has some commentary and the language of the landmark regulatory bills: AB 243, AB 266 and SB 643. Stay tuned to Marijuana Politics as we will have some more analysis about the impact of these bills, both to the existing medical program and future legalization attempts.
California lawmakers are set to adjourn today, but apparently not before passing three last-minute medical marijuana bills that will bring standard, statewide regulations to the massive California medical cannabis industry for the first time. As of now, most in the industry have not seen the language, so they are waiting very nervously on the final text. My social media feeds have been filled with cannabis activists and entrepreneurs inquiring about the text of the bills. A few in the cannabis community have been open about welcoming regulations, but most comments that I have seen are lamenting the regulations, suspect that the state can get the rules right and worried that poor patients and mom and pop businesses will lose in the end.
Almost two decades after Californians approved the medical use of marijuana, state legislators are suddenly rushing to regulate the quasi-legal, semi-legitimate industry that emerged from that historic vote. Last night the authors of three bills that would establish state rules for growing and distributing medical marijuana announced that legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown had reached agreement on a package that both houses will have to pass by the end of today.
The legislation creates a Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation within the Department of Consumer Affairs that will be charged with licensing and regulating growers, processors, and retailers. Patients will still be allowed to grow their own medicine, but dispenaries operating as patient collectives or cooperatives will be replaced by state-licensed businesses within a year after licenses become available. Cities and counties will be allowed to impose special taxes (in addition to standard sales taxes) on production and sale of medical marijuana, subject to approval by local voters. The plan includes a “seed-to-sale” monitoring system similar to those adopted by Colorado and Washington, aimed at preventing diversion to nonmedical use.
Although California was the first state to pass a medical marijuana ballot initiative, back in 1996, it has never managed to specify where and how patients can obtain their medicine if they are not up to growing it themselves and cannot find a “primary caregiver” who is willing and able to do it for them. As other states began regulating medical marijuana growers and distributors, California’s dispensaries continued to operate in a legal gray area, inviting local and federal crackdowns.
The bills preserve the rights of cities and counties to ban medical marijuana businesses and the ability of individuals with doctor’s recommendations to use medical marijuana to grow limited amounts themselves.
They also seek to address the growing outrage over environmental damage caused by illegal marijuana cultivation by treating marijuana as an agricultural product subject to pesticide and water use restrictions.
The office charged with overseeing the new standards will be housed within the California Department of Consumer Affairs. But the Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Public Health will have prominent roles in their implementation and enforcement, according to Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, a co-sponsor of the main assembly bill.
I definitely understand the angst of the California cannabis community as they wait for passage of these bills. It must be nerve-wracking to have very little idea how your livelihood or medicine will be impacted by last-minute political compromises and maneuvering. Additionally, I know that some organizations looking to lead a 2016 legalization drive have put their plans on hold until they see the new medical laws as those regulations will greatly impact in 2016 initiative effort.
Judging by Oregon’s experience on this issue, I imagine that the new California regulations will set up a series of rulemaking hearings by the various government agencies involved, providing an opportunity for stakeholders to weigh in, but rulemaking hearings are more administrative, so the regulators tend to be more or less immune to political lobbying. Unfortunately, many of the bureaucrats making the ultimate decision won’t have much experience with cannabis; hopefully advisory committees will be formed, giving the cannabis industry some time to educate those that will be regulating cannabis production, processing and dispensing.
As a veteran of several legislative and political battles, along with a couple of rulemaking efforts, I certainly don’t envy my California comrades. I hope that everything shakes out so that the Golden State provides a level playing field that doesn’t squeeze out small businesses or price out sick and disabled patients. I look forward to discussing the regulations with some California advocates in town for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Business Conference this weekend and we will certainly be addressing the new regulations at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco next February. I urge the California community to stay vigilant, but to take into account the big picture, as no matter what happens, the state will have one of the best medical cannabis laws in the country and should still be in a good position to legalize marijuana for all adults in 2016.