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Voters in California adopted the county’s first medical cannabis law in 1996, but the state has lagged behind in implementing it. The Medical Marijuana Program Act (SB 420), adopted by the legislature in 2003, recognized cooperative and collective patients’ associations, but gave little clarity as to the details of how they should operate. Cities and counties have developed a patchwork of local ordinances regulating and banning medical cannabis in the legal vacuum. That leaves some cities and counties with stable, well-regulated facilities, while others are effectively "access deserts" - areas without safe, legal, and dignified access to medicine.
Most of the players in California’s nascent medical cannabis industry see regulations as inevitable, and the more savvy ones recognize the benefits regulation offers to those looking to serve the state’s vast patient population on the long term. Two regulatory bills are vying for support in Sacramento right now: Senator Lou Correa’s (D-Santa Ana) SB 1262 and Assembly Member Tom Ammiano’s (D-San Francisco) AB 1894. They take different tacks, but both would reign in the commercial medical cannabis trade and related businesses. So what is in it for patients? A lot, it turns out.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation’s leading medical cannabis patients’ advocacy organization, strongly supports sensible regulations that protect patients, preserve access, and address community concerns. As advocates for patients, ASA sees many upsides to regulation for the industry serving our constituents. These include:
- Research conducted by ASA and the experience from nearly ten years of local ordinances show that regulations reduce crime and complaints around medical cannabis facilities. Furthermore, a report recently issued by the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs about the impact of medical cannabis dispensaries in Colorado similarly found that medical cannabis dispensing operations do not harm local communities.
- Local regulations preserve patients’ access. Cities and counties with long-established regulation tend to have access points for patients that are more stable and consistent. Patients in well-regulated cities like San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and Sebastopol have been able to rely on storefront access for years. But in cities like San Diego (until recently) and Riverside, the tide of safe access ebbs and flows depending on the political climate at the time. Patients should be able to count on the fact that their cooperative or collective will be there tomorrow, and regulations make that more likely.
- Regulations protect the health and safety of patients. Rules about security, hours of operation, background checks, and other standards are already protecting patients from harm. Evolving standards for cultivation, processing, distribution, and testing – like those recently published by the American Herbal Products Association – promise even greater consumer safety and confidence in the future.
- Regulations diffuse opposition that can lead to police pressure or bad local ordinances. Sensible rules reassure neighbors that medical cannabis facilities are safe and accountable. We have consistently seen community opposition to medical cannabis cooperatives and collectives diminish after regulations have been adopted in places like Sacramento, Berkeley, West Hollywood, Los Angeles, and others.
- Regulations provide clarity for what is legal for law enforcement. It is normal to see a higher degree of law enforcement activity in a jurisdiction before regulations are adopted than afterwards. This is because regulations make it clear what is legal, and that helps mitigate law enforcement encounters for patients and provides.
- Statewide regulations may encourage cities and counties to regulate medical cannabis cultivation and distribution, instead of ban it. Local lawmakers all over California have told me privately or said in public meetings that they do not know how far the protections of state law extend. Clarity may provide a safe space for local government to regulate, if they are inclined to do so for compassionate, political, or revenue-related reasons.
We still have a long way to go in California. Neither of the two legislative proposals before lawmakers this year is perfect. But it is past time that legal patients in California enjoy the benefits or sensible regulations for commercial medical cannabis activity. ASA calls on lawmakers to compromise and cooperate to get an acceptable bill adopted this year.
We cannot afford to wait much longer. Unfinished business for medical cannabis patients is waiting for the regulatory debate to move forward. We still need to address local bans on cultivation and distribution and protection for patients’ civil rights, including equal access to health care, housing, employment, and parental rights. We also need to seek better ways to protect medical cannabis consumers and ensure quality in the industry. ASA’s Patient Focused Certification program points towards a path forward on that front.
I hope medical cannabis patients and other stakeholders can make some real progress this year. Lawmakers need to hear what you don’t like about the current bills, and more importantly, what you would like to see. It is just as important to be reasonable and pragmatic. We may not get everything we want. Most importantly, patients and other stakeholders need to stay involved. We cannot afford to let apathy, cynicism, or fatigue keep us from speaking up.