The Current State of California’s Medical Cannabis Laws

In 1996, California voters approved an initiative that exempted certain patients and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under state law for the possession and cultivation of marijuana. Known as the Compassionate Use Act, this initiative created what today is known as California Medical Marijuana Program. In 2003, the Legislature enacted additional legislation relating to medical marijuana. Known as Senate Bill 420, this legislative act authorized medical collectives for cooperative procurement of medical marijuana. Since then, there have been no comprehensive statewide regulations adopted in order to regulate this multibillion-dollar industry.  There have been several legislative attempts at a solution but alas twenty years after the original initiative still no clear regulation exists.  This lack of regulations has allowed California to become what Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsome calls the “The Worst of All Worlds” of the Cannabis industry.  Fortunately, 2015 has been a significant year for the cannabis industry on a national level.  The final CRomnibus federal spending bill included historic language prohibiting the U.S. Justice Department from spending any money to undermine state medical marijuana laws.  Additionally for the first time, the federal government is considering changes to the Controlled Substances Act that would see marijuana treated like other medicinal products.  This would be of greater significance to California if the state had clear guidelines regulating the cannabis industry.

Two California Assembly bills as well as a Senate Bill are competing to create a framework for how medical marijuana can be produced and sold within the State.  Medical Marijuana Public Safety and Environmental Protection Act (SB643) authored by Humboldt County State Senator Mike McGuire focuses on the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation. The Medical Cannabis Regulation and Enforcement Act (AB-34) authored by Rob Bonta and Reginald Jones-Sawyer would instead create a “strong regulatory regime” that would facilitate increased industry safety and higher quality product.  The bill primarily focuses on State level enforcement but allows for local ordinances as well.  Finally, the Medical Marijuana Act (“AB-266”) authored by Ken Cooley, places regulatory power in the hands of local authorities with some State oversight. Under AB-266 a single state agency would issue licenses while local authorities draft the actual ordinances regulating production and sales.  All three bills have overcome the same legislative hurdles in their respective houses and are now awaiting the appropriations committees. AB-266 has the support of Police Chiefs and the League of California Cities while AB-34 has the support of the California Cannabis Industry Association and the Emerald Grower Association (EGA).
While it remains to be seen which sponsors line up behind SB643, change is coming for the California Medical Marijuana industry.  It appears that producers and collectives would prefer a more holistic approach that sees statewide reform and regulation that allows for more open and public operation.  This would mean empowering agencies like the State Bureau of Alcohol Beverage Control, department of public health and department of food and agriculture. In order for this standardized regulation to be achieved, many local bans, moratoriums and zoning restrictions need to be relaxed and by effect local authority will be reduced.  Police Chiefs and Cities seem to be backing AB-266 because it gives them the greatest control over policy while only ceding licensing authority to a single state agency.  While the authors of AB-34 call their bill “ the single most thoughtful, innovative bill on the subject California has ever seen,” authors of AB-266 say it does little to respect the right of local municipalities to make choices for their cities.  At the same time Ken Cooley has invited proponents from all sides to offer modifications to his bill stating, “You’ll be hard pressed to find a member who is more open to finding a reasonable center then me.”  It is clear that members of the legislature observe the State’s calls for reform but it is still unclear as to weather the needs of the industry and the greater public are being appropriately balanced to allow for harmonious coexistence.

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