Medical Marijuana Bills Retooled

California legislators regrouped last week and cobbled together a revised package of medical marijuana legislation with a wary eye on a growing campaign for a statewide initiative to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Three bills were compared, juggled and retooled Thursday in appropriation committee hearings in the Assembly and Senate. All three were amended and passed along the legislative chain with hopes they’ll win full approval by the Sept. 11 deadline and land on the governor’s desk.

Their fate there — if they make it that far — is not clear. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has not expressed much interest in legalizing or regulating marijuana.

Brown’s lack of an appetite for marijuana may become a moot point if proponents succeed in getting a recreational use initiative on the 2016 ballot. Several groups — including ReformCA and the NAACP — are gaining momentum in that direction.

Two Decades With Little Oversight

California was the first state to sanction marijuana for health purposes with a 1996 ballot measure. On several occasions over the past two decades, state officials — in the Legislature and in government agencies — talked about creating detailed statewide regulations for growing and selling medicinal marijuana.

None of the efforts got far … until now.

As originally proposed, two of the current bills called for comprehensive licensing and oversight for growing and selling medical marijuana in California. The third bill dealt with environmental effects of the industry.

Here’s how the bills looked when introduced earlier this year:

  • SB 643, by Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), the Medical Marijuana Public Safety and Environmental Protection Act, would create a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation and allow counties to levy a tax on growers and sellers of medical marijuana;
  • AB 266, by Assembly member Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) also called for widespread regulatory action based on a two-tier system, giving the state the responsibility of issuing conditional licenses and local governments the authority to issue the actual operational licenses for growers, transporters and dispensaries; and
  • AB 243, by Assembly member Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) would direct state agencies — such as the Water Resources Control Board — to review the environmental effects of cultivating marijuana and establish rules to diminish those effects.

All three were changed last week. New versions are not yet available to the public. The McGuire and Bonta bills were essentially gutted of content and replaced with language of intent, according to staff reports. They both now say essentially, “It is the intent of the Legislature to enact a comprehensive regulatory framework for medical marijuana in the State of California.” 

Legislators and representatives of Brown’s administration hope to agree on the details over the next couple of weeks.

“We look forward to continuing working with our stakeholder groups and partners in the Senate and the administration to ensure California has a strong regulatory framework for medical cannabis,” Bonta said after the appropriations amendments were approved.

McGuire is confident.

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to have a strong, comprehensive bill that will benefit the residents of California for decades to come,” McGuire said.

Wood said legislators and the governor’s office are “very close to consensus.”

“There are still a lot of moving parts. As we move into the final days of the legislative session, I am working closely with the administration to finalize the components of AB 243 so we can ensure this important legislation will be enacted. AB 243 provides a critical component in the overall regulation of the cannabis industry by creating a funding source to address the environmental devastation that is occurring in our forests and watersheds,” Wood said.

New Sense of Urgency

Bonta’s bill, in its earlier versions, won support from the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Cannabis Industry Association.

McGuire’s bill, which was approved on the Senate floor in June, has special significance for Northern Californians where marijuana cultivation is a growing industry.

The majority of all marijuana grown in the United States is grown in four counties — Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity,” McGuire said.

“I’ve seen estimates that marijuana and all its related industries are a $40 billion industry. All agriculture combined in California is estimated at $42 billion. Marijuana is the only crop not tested before public consumption,” McGuire said.

McGuire, chair of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, said large-scale rogue marijuana growers are having a negative effect on Northern California watersheds.

While we have seen positive economic impacts, we’ve also seen significant negative impacts,” McGuire said. “The impacts are horrendous and the drought has had an exacerbating effect, especially on the North Coast. Entire rivers are running dry as marijuana growers expand and the fourth year of this historic drought sets in,” McGuire said.

California’s approach to medical marijuana regulation has been impotent over the past two decades, McGuire said. After the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, legislators said they would build a statewide regulatory framework for medical cannabis.

“The Legislature 19 years ago made a promise and the promise was not kept. We owe it to the residents of California to keep that promise now. When you allow an industry to grow unregulated for as long as we have with cannabis, we are going to pay the price. We are inundated with the impacts of this multi-billion dollar industry and we cannot sacrifice our communities, the environment and patient safety any longer,” McGuire said.

Most stakeholders and policy watchers agree that the likelihood of a ballot measure legalizing recreational use has created a new sense of urgency in Sacramento.

“The legalization discussion has definitely changed the tone of the conversation,” Natasha Minsker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union advocacy center in Sacramento, told the Associated Press. “There is real potential a legalization initiative will set the tone for regulation and taxation, and if the Legislature wants to be involved, now is the time.”

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