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David Downs, East Bay Express
Grab your medicated popcorn. August is going to be an action-packed month in California pot politics. A bill to regulate the state's vast, $1.8 billion medical cannabis industry is speeding through Sacramento on a tight, end-of-August deadline.
But it has been difficult to keep up with the numerous changes to Senate Bill 1262 — which is all the more disconcerting because law enforcement lobbyists are in the driver's seat and many of them either know little about the industry or are downright hostile to it.
"It's a little unsettling given how important this is and how little time we have," said Don Duncan, California coordinator for the 30,000-strong advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
But ASA is staying on-board with SB 1262, which is sponsored by state Senator Lou Correa, a Democrat from Southern California. The bill is scheduled to be taken up by the Assembly's Appropriations Committee in August, and has to be approved by the entire Assembly by the end of the August, or it's over for this legislative session.
SB 1262 has improved since the California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities' first draft was introduced in the state Senate in spring. Advocacy groups such as ASA, the Drug Policy Alliance, California NORML, and the Emerald Growers Association have been having closed-door, sit-down meetings with the police chiefs and the league in Sacramento this summer in an attempt to iron out their differences.
Broadly speaking, the bill is intended to foster a long-overdue development: the creation of a statewide regulatory system for medical cannabis. Under the most recent version of the bill, personal medical marijuana cultivation would still be allowed but commercial growers, processors, and dispensaries would need an operating license from a new state agency. They'd have to pass background checks and uphold basic safety and health standards, including employing security guards at dispensaries and conducting mold tests on pot.
As of press time, the most recent version of the bill is still supported by the police chiefs, the league, and ASA. But California NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition oppose it unless it's amended.
The DPA argues that the current version of the bill would make things worse for Californians. For one, anybody with a past drug felony would be disqualified from getting an industry license. That provision would place additional burdens upon many Californians — particularly African-American and Latino residents — who've already paid their debt to society.
In addition, many of the industry's biggest and best actors wouldn't qualify for a license, for technical reasons, such as an outstanding federal case (Harborside Health Center in Oakland) or the lack of official city permission to grow (which is pretty much every urban farmer in California). The bill also provides statewide approval of controversial new city bans on medical pot dispensaries.
"The issues are extremely glaring, and, frankly, I'm not sure they can be resolved," said Amanda Reiman, DPA's California policy manager. "The police chiefs think medical marijuana is a sham and look at this as an opportunity to stifle the progression of medical marijuana policy. The rules are worse than what we have now and would completely disable the program."
Duncan said ASA is still supporting and hoping to help mold its final shape. He is worried about the bill's restrictions on dual licensing, which would ban a grower from operating a dispensary. Also, an onerous tax clause in SB 1262 would allow local government agencies to tax the industry "at any rate" they want, subject to any local voter-approved laws.
Nate Bradley of the California Cannabis Industry Association said the police chiefs "don't truly understand the size of the industry and how it operates." California has 38 million people and an estimated 1 million medical cannabis patients. Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon have state-level pot regulation, but their systems aren't informing the discussion in Sacramento. "They're operating kind of in a vacuum," he said.
"Sacramento doesn't like to cut and paste," said Duncan. "They have a long tradition of doing it their own way."
Another hurdle facing SB 1262 is the cost of implementing the regulations, and the Assembly's Appropriations Committee analysis will be pivotal. If the analysis estimates that the costs will be relatively low, the bill has a good chance of reaching the governor's desk. But if the estimate of the costs is high, SB 1262 may never make it out of the Assembly.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco was a once a co-sponsor of the bill, but then dropped his support for it because of recent amendments to it. Ammiano's spokesperson Carlos Alcala noted that the law as written could harm Harborside Health Center. "Oakland is not happy with this, NORML is not happy with this, and Mr. Ammiano is not happy with this," Alcala said. "Mr. Ammiano really wants to see something happen, but can't see it happening in a way that sends things backwards."
ASA plans to hold a citizens' lobbying event at the Capitol On August 4, with hundreds of patients sitting down for short meetings with their Assemblymembers and urging them to support sensible rules in California. Every advocacy group is urging residents to call their mayor, assemblymember, and the governor's office to let them know they favor progressive regulations in the Golden State.