California lawmakers considering new rules for medical marijuana
May 26, 2013
Andrew Edwards, LA Daily NewsA pair of bills that would enhance the legal standing of medical marijuana providers have advanced in the Legislature following this month's landmark court ruling that affirmed the rights of local governments to ban dispensaries.
The bills are two components of the ongoing and often passionate arguments between Californians who support brick-and-mortar marijuana dispensaries and those who oppose such storefront operations as "pot shops" that often provide marijuana to people lacking serious medical problems.
On one side, two of the Legislature's leading Democrats are backing the bills in the face of opposition from Republicans and law enforcement leaders. The California Police Chief's Association has pledged to oppose the bills, which would create new regulations and protections for medical marijuana providers within state law. The federal government's ban on marijuana would remain in force.
The more ambitious of the two bills, from San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Friday. Ammiano's bill would establish Division of Medical Marijuana Regulation within the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The new bureaucracy would have power to set standards for growing, transporting and selling medical marijuana. Providers would be able to register with the state and marijuana products would be required to meet labeling and quality standards.
The bill, A.B. 473, can now be considered by the entire Assembly.
"I think we're turning a corner on marijuana regulation," Ammiano said in a statement Friday.
The second bill, from Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, would give marijuana collectives that operate according to the state Attorney General's guidelines immunity from prosecution for selling or possessing marijuana. The bill would also allow dispensary operators and employees to receive "reasonable compensation," but would not overturn local governments' power to ban dispensaries.
Steinberg's bill, S.B. 439, passed a Senate floor vote on Monday over opposition from the chamber's Republican minority. A hearing date has yet be scheduled in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which Ammiano chairs.
The California Police Chiefs Association will lobby against both bills as they continue to move through the Legislature, said Kim Raney, the group's president.
Raney, chief of the Covina Police Department since 2001, said he and other chiefs are concerned by the lack of clarity between the state law and the federal prohibition of marijuana, as well as the ease of which some people can obtain medical marijuana recommendations without necessarily having serious medical conditions.
"If you're going to have serious conversation about marijuana, in a medical forum, it needs to be done through a legitimate medical process," Raney said.
As opposed to Alcoholic Beverage Control, Raney said medical marijuana policies could be better overseen by the state's medical or pharmacy boards, which respectively bear the responsibilities to license and regulate physicians and pharmacists who practice in California.
Americans for Safe Access, which lobbies in support of medical marijuana, is supporting both bills. The group would also prefer that Alcoholic Beverage Control would not be the agency placed in charge of medical marijuana regulation, although its reasons are different from those of police chiefs.
Don Duncan, California director for Americans for Safe Access, said Alcoholic Beverage Control is perceived as an enforcement-focused agency. He suggested the state departments of Public Health or Consumer Affairs as superior options.
"We don't want to see it regulated like alcohol, or tobacco, because there are issues like patient rights," he said.
Although Duncan acknowledged he was unsure if the Legislature would accept such a major amendment to Ammiano's bill, he said he is optimistic both bills will become law.
California's medical marijuana laws have beset law enforcement and patient advocates alike with several uncertainties since voters approved Proposition. 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act in 1996.
That law exempted medical marijuana patients and their doctors from punishment, and campaign supporters advocated for medicinal marijuana use as a way to relieve the sufferings of patients suffering from diseases like cancer, AIDS and glaucoma.
The 2004 Medical Marijuana Program made it possible for patients to obtain identification cards and collectively grow marijuana with other patients and caregivers for medical purposes.
But state laws, however, did not provide a crystal clear definition of what a proper medical marijuana collective would be. Confusion over the law allowed numerous storefront dispensaries to establish themselves over the past few years and even operate openly in cities where their existence is illegal under local ordinances.
The state Supreme Court ruled early this month in a unanimous decision that cities have an absolute right under existing law to forbid dispensaries. In San Bernardino, for example, officials quickly followed the ruling raiding and shutting down dispensaries.
In Los Angeles, by contrast, city voters decided in the May 21 election to allow the city to regulate and tax as many as 135 dispensaries. Although the measure would allow dispensaries to exist in the state's largest city, there are hundreds of other marijuana providers who could be shuttered as a result of the ballot measure.