Bill would increase state's oversight of pot clubs

Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle

With federal authorities demanding more oversight of California's medicinal marijuana dispensaries, the state Legislature is again trying to create order where there has been chaos.

On the eve of a U.S. Senate hearing on changing federal marijuana policy, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, on Monday introduced AB604, his latest attempt to regulate the state's estimated 1,000 dispensaries.

The Medical Cannabis Regulation and Control Act is similar in many ways to AB439, an Ammiano-crafted measure that narrowly failed this year in the Legislature. But advocates say this version provides more safeguards that law enforcement officials have long demanded, plus it is co-written by Sens. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, two of the more influential politicians in Sacramento.

Patchwork of regulations

The measure would create the Division of Medical Cannabis Regulation and Enforcement within the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to oversee not only the state's dispensaries, but also the production, processing, distribution, transportation and testing of medicinal pot. Advocates hope the measure will provide uniform rules to guide providers and law enforcement in place of the quilt of laws now in place.

In California, more than 50 cities and counties have approved laws regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, while more than 200 municipalities have banned them. Northern California has been home to scores of medicinal pot clubs, but some large regions of the state - such as San Diego and much of the Central Valley - have no medicinal pot outlets.

"Not only are patients in California barraged by virtually daily closures of dispensaries due to aggressive attacks by the Justice Department, but the patchwork system of local bans and regulations in the state leaves hundreds of thousands of patients without safe access to medical marijuana," said Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy organization.

"This time, the legislation gives law enforcement what they wanted before," said Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach (Los Angeles County) police lieutenant who is a board member for the drug reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which supports the measure. "If they don't support it, they're just being intransigent."

But a top lobbyist for a coalition of California law enforcement agencies called the measure "a terrible bill."

"It's as objectionable as its predecessor," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association. Included in the bill, Lovell said, are numerous loopholes that would enable a club to slip past a city's ban on medical cannabis centers. Lovell also was dubious about whether the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could manage cannabis facilities "when they can't even keep up with complaints about neighborhood liquor stores and bars."

National perspective

It will be a rush to get this legislation through the Legislature. Friday is the last day for each house to pass bills. But advocates think they might have the political muscle to do it.

"The difference (from Ammiano's previous attempt) is that the leadership of both houses is going to make an effort to pass it," said Dale Gieringer, who leads the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Nationally, the issue has come into greater prominence as the Justice Department recently tried to clarify its rules on when federal authorities should crack down on medicinal marijuana operations in the 20 states where voters have approved medicinal pot.

On Tuesday, a top Justice Department official will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in an effort to offer some clarity on how the federal government will treat the two states where marijuana is legal to all adults and the 20 where it is available only for medicinal purposes. The Drug Enforcement Agency still officially classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

Last month, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a memo that the feds weren't going to be as focused on "states and local governments that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form" and have "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."

The question that many inside and outside California's medical marijuana industry ask is: Do federal authorities think California has a strong system? The memo didn't mention California or medicinal marijuana specifically.

Question of size

In July 2012, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in San Francisco - who has cracked down on dozens of dispensaries that she says are violating federal law - wrote: "The larger the operation, the greater the likelihood that there will be abuse of the state's medical marijuana law and marijuana in the hands of individuals who do not have a demonstrated medical need."

Cole's memo, however, states that prosecutors "should not consider size or commercial nature alone" in determining whether a dispensary violates federal guidelines on marijuana.