Big news in California

CA State Capitol BuildingI hope you have all heard the big news from Washington, DC, last week. The US House of Representatives voted to end funding for federal medical cannabis enforcement in states where it is legal. This is a major victory for medical cannabis patients and providers! Read more about the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment and what comes next in a blog by ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer and in the “News” Section of the website.

You may not have seen another big story from right here in California. On Thursday, the same day as that momentous vote in Congress, the California Assembly rejected a bill by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) that would have empowered the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to write and enforce regulations for commercial medical cannabis activity statewide. AB 1894 lost by a vote of 26 to 33, with 20 lawmakers not voting (corrected 06/02/2014). The bill needed 41 votes to pass the Assembly and advance to the Senate.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA) strongly supports sensible regulations for commercial medical cannabis activity. Our research and experience show this preserves safe and dignified access for legal patients, while reducing crime and complaints. We applaud Assembly member Ammiano for years of support and leadership on this issue. Unfortunately, we were unable to endorse AB 1894 because it would have made medical cannabis the only medicine in the state regulated by ABC – the agency that oversees sales of alcohol in California. ASA believes that ABC is an inappropriate agency to license and enforce regulations for medicine. Read more about our reservations in my blog.

Fortunately, the debate about medical cannabis is not over this year. Another regulatory bill was approved by the Senate by a vote of 31 to 0 and is now on its way to the Assembly. SB 1262 by Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) also seeks to regulate commercial medical cannabis activity, but places oversight in the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). ASA prefers this agency because the mission and experience of DCA already involves licensing and consumer protection. Problematic language about doctors who recommend medical cannabis has been removed from SB 1262, and the provisions regulating cultivation and distribution of medicine are reasonable.

ASA recognized the potential in SB 1262 early in the process. We worked with the Sen. Correa and other sponsors to significantly improve the bill, and ASA was the first in the medical cannabis field to endorse it. SB 1262 is a milestone in the medical cannabis debate in the state legislature. This is the first time that the California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities have not opposed medical cannabis regulations. Having these two powerful lobby organizations standing beside patients and behind a regulatory bill is unprecedented. ASA regards this broad and influential coalition as a key strength of SB 1262, and we call on advocates and lawmakers to join us in supporting SB 1262.

No legislative proposal is perfect. While SB 1262 will help regulate medical cannabis dispensaries statewide, it does not stop cities and counties from banning them, something the California Supreme Court last year ruled they can do in City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients’ Health and Wellness Center. Neither does the bill currently include incentives for cities and counties to regulate commercial medical cannabis activity instead of ban it.

ASA also believes the bill would be more beneficial for patients if it included sliding scale fees for smaller commercial cultivators and providers. Explicitly including language that covers cooperatives and collectives in cities that allow but do not specifically “authorize,” medical cannabis activity would be helpful for cities such as Los Angeles, where more than 100 facilities are qualified for “limited immunity” under voter–approved Measure D but are not eligible for business licenses or permits.

There is still a lot of work to do on SB 1262. We must keep advocating for the changes we want and stay vigilant in opposing amendments that might be harmful to patients and providers. It will be a tough battle to get this bill through Assembly committees, passed by the full body, and signed by the Governor. But it will be worth it, if we can do it. Patients in California have been waiting too long for the proven benefits of medical cannabis regulation. SB 1262, supported by reasonable voices on both sides of the issue, is our best chance to get it done – and the last vehicle we have this year.