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The California Assembly rejected AB 473 on Friday. The 35-37 vote means the effort by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF) to regulate commercial medical cannabis activity in the state will not move on to the Senate. Friday was the last day for bills to be approved in their house of origin, but even after two votes in as many days, the controversial bill did not garner the forty one votes needed for approval. AB 473 would have created a new Division in the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to write and enforce statewide regulations.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and our coalition partners at Californians to Regulate Medical Marijuana (CRMM) strongly support the goal of better and more equitably regulating commercial medical cannabis activity in California. Although medical cannabis has been legal in the state for seventeen years, the legislature has never adopted a comprehensive plan to implement Proposition 215 or regulate cultivation, transportation, and distribution of medicine. Patients, cultivators, industry workers, and other stakeholders need sensible regulations to help overcome public ambivalence, perceptions of abuse, and wildly inconsistent enforcement practices in communities across the state.
AB 473 might have been an important step towards a better-regulated medical cannabis system in California, but there were some big problems with the bill. The medical cannabis community was reluctant to embrace ABC as a regulatory body for medical cannabis. ASA steadfastly argued for regulatory oversight in another part of the Department of Consumer Affairs or the Department of Health. We worried that ABC, which is charged with reigning in vice, would be poorly motivated to facilitate access to medicine.
ASA also took issue with an eleventh-hour amendment in the Appropriations Committee that made local zoning approval a prerequisite for the state registration required under the bill. More than two-hundred cities and counties already have bans on medical cannabis patients’ cooperatives and collectives. Others have bans or severe limitations on cultivating medicine. A recent California Supreme Court Decision, City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, authorizes local bans, and many of our constituents were looking for legislation that corrected or mitigated the court’s unfortunate ruling. This amendment did the opposite.
One lesson from AB 473 is that lawmakers need to hear from supporters in their community if we expect them to make difficult decisions and stand up for medical cannabis. AB 473 lost because Democrats in Southern and Central California failed to support the bill. Fourteen Democrats from these more conservative parts of the state joined five Northern California Democrats in voting no on the bill. Another seven Democrats cast no vote at all, which is functionally vote against the bill (forty-one votes are needed for approval). The bill only needed six of those twenty six votes to pass. Could patients and advocates have swayed six of these twenty six Democrats to vote yes, if the Assemblymembers knew there was support for an affirmative vote at home? Absolutely.
Another lesson from AB 473 is that lawmakers need to listen to their constituents when they have concerns about legislation. The community’s uncertainty about the net benefit of AB 473 was clear. The Author and Democratic leadership must realize that our community expects to be heard alongside the army of lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants that have flocked to this issue in the last two years. Medical cannabis may be a nascent industry, but it is still fundamentally a patients’ movement. Patients must be at the table when bills and amendments are being vetted.
Perhaps the most important lesson from the demise of AB 473 is the need for pragmatism from all of the stakeholders. This bill was imperfect, but the process of implementing medical cannabis law and regulating commercial activity must move forward for everyone’s benefit. We are not going to get everything we want in a medical cannabis bill right now, and we will not be able to stop every proposal or amendment with which we disagree. Compromise is part of the political process. It would be a shame to miss another opportunity to move the ball down the court for patients, cultivators, and industry workers because we do not agree on all of the details.
We are going to have another chance to do something about medical cannabis in Sacramento this year. SB 439 by Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Senator Mark Leno (D-SF) was approved by the Senate on May 20. That bill will clarify the scope of protection offered by the state’s medical cannabis laws and codifies guidelines published by the Attorney General in 2008. SB 439 will formally recognize the right of patients’ cooperatives and collectives to maintain storefront facilities (dispensaries) to provide medicine for members, expands protections to employees of patients’ associations, and recognizes that members buy their medicine from the associations. Substantial amendments – good and bad – are likely as the bill moves through the Assembly.
Let’s learn our lessons from AB 473 and do a better job of shaping and adopting SB 439. Speak up to your lawmakers about this bill, insist that everyone is included in the debate, and be reasonable about compromises that may be necessary to get where we need to go.