Marijuana Policy Winds Shifting in California

Almost two decades after California became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana, the policy winds are shifting again in the Golden State.

There is debate about how regulations might change and how soon, but there is little debate that change is coming.

A number of factors have California lawmakers and bureaucrats scrambling to find political purchase in a shifting landscape. Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use last year and more states could follow suit this year. At the same time, poll after poll shows growing acceptance of legalizing recreational marijuana.

At its annual convention earlier this month, the California Democratic Party voted to support legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for all uses — medicinal, recreational and industrial.

Some high-profile Democrats aren’t so sure it’s a good idea. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed skepticism last week. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said he’s worried that California — and the nation as a whole — might lose focus. “All of a sudden if there’s advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?” Brown said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — also a Democrat — disagrees with his boss on the issue. Newsom said California’s efforts “to incarcerate our way to solving this problem” have failed, and it’s time to look for new solutions.

Nationally, public opinion polls from Pew Research CenterCNN and Gallup show a majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana for all uses.

Although efforts are underway to get initiatives on the November ballot this year, most stakeholders expect the issue won’t be in front of California voters until 2016.

Law Enforcement, Cities Say Change Is Needed

Two statewide organizations that previously lobbied against efforts to regulate medical marijuana in California now say it’s a good idea.

The California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities are sponsors of a bill in the Legislature that would give state officials oversight of the industry. They have opposed the idea since California voters in 1996 approved Prop. 215 authorizing the use of medical marijuana.

SB 1262, by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), would give state officials new regulatory authority over all aspects of medicinal marijuana — farmers who grow it, retail shops that sell it and physicians who prescribe it.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the new effort to regulate medical marijuana in California is a reaction to society’s move toward acceptance of the drug.

“What I think is going on is that lawmakers and city officials who haven’t wanted to deal with this issue have looked at polling, they’ve seen what happened in Colorado and Washington and they realize that Californians are ready to legalize marijuana outright. You don’t need to have a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen. I think these entities are realizing that if they want to have a seat at the table and have any say in how we live with marijuana going forward, they’re going to have to get a seat at the table now, something they’ve been reluctant to do,” Armentano said.

Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the police chiefs association, told the Associated Press the legislation has widespread support in law enforcement.

“This legislation seems counterintuitive, but we polled our membership and over 90% of the chiefs felt that, regardless of how you felt about the marijuana issue itself, there needed to be a responsible public safety approach to this,” Raney said.

Medical marijuana advocates have been trying for 18 years to get the California Legislature to establish regulations in an effort to standardize and legitimize the industry that still faces federal raids and arrests.

“Most other states that approved medical marijuana then established a legal framework with regulations about growing and selling and prescribing, but not California,” Armentano said. “In other states — Maine, Oregon, Nevada — we’ve seen that once these laws pass, then lawmakers begin to set up the regulatory framework. That hasn’t happened in California so what you have is a very disjointed patchwork of city and county regulations that don’t have any uniformity.”

While Correa’s bill would establish some statewide policies, it would not interfere with city and county ordinances, according to Tim Cromartie, a lobbyist with the League of California Cities.

“We’re not changing the patchwork. We’re protecting local control,” Cromartie said in an interview with the Sacramento Business Journal.

Medicinal Uses Could Grow With Greater Acceptance

Growing acceptance of marijuana’s other uses — recreational and industrial — could expand the drug’s applications in health care, according to medical marijuana advocates.

“Look at what’s happening in Utah right now,” Armentano said. “There’s a bill on the governor’s desk that would approve the manufacture of an anti-seizure medication. There are a lot of medicinal applications for cannabis that have nothing to do with the psychotropic aspects of the plant. When we move toward being more accepting of the whole plant, you will see more and more medicinal possibilities,” Armentano said.

Bills authorizing the use of the marijuana extract cannabidiol were approved in two state legislatures last week — Georgia and Utah. If signed by the governor, the Georgia measure — HB 885 — would be the first medical marijuana law approved in the south. The Utah bill — HB 105 — grants the Utah Department of Agriculture the right to grow marijuana and allows Utah residents suffering from epileptic seizures to use cannabis oil. Utah Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart, who authored the bill, said 80% of 180 children using the drug have seen a 50% reduction in the frequency of debilitating seizures.

“The medical aspects of marijuana have great potential — especially for the immune system and skin — but only in a legal market will people begin to appreciate the non-psychotropic properties of this plant,” Armentano said.

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