Session Over: California’s Historic Medical Pot Bill Killed

David Downs, San Francisco Chronicle

A historic bill to create much-needed regulations for the state’s flourishing, $1.8 billion estimated medical pot industry landed in the dustbin today.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee failed to pass Senate Bill 1262 this afternoon. The bill had until today to get out of Appropriations, and the end of the month to pass the Assembly. It was “held in committee”. No vote was given.

“We’ll have to get started working on this again in January,” said Don Duncan, head of California Americans for Safe Access, the day before the hearing.

Sponsored by Southern California Sen. Lou Correa, SB 1262 faced huge hurdles to get to the Governor’s desk and a nail-biting finale at Assembly Appropriations.

California voters are expected to head to the polls in 2016 and potentially legalize pot. Legalization’s seeming inevitability prompted police and city lobbies to fill the regulatory vacuum in medical marijuana before voters loosened laws further.

Senate Bill 1262 stands as a document the state’s concessions to reality: hundreds of thousands of patients have a doctor’s recommendation for the ancient herbal remedy, which has been legal since 1996. The bill contained reams of never-before-seen details for state regulation of the product, including contaminant testing and security requirements.

But the bill had fundamental flaws.

There’s little agreement on who should be in charge of regulating the botanical. Right now, cities and counties do it themselves, but usually just ban medical marijuana activity. Colorado regulated medical weed with the Dept. of Revenue, which had day-lighted the gaming industry.

Pro-legalization San Francisco Rep. Tom Ammiano favored the Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control, while cop-backed Sen. Correa introduced the bill under the Dept. of Public Health, and eventually shifted to the Dept. of Consumer Affairs. But DCA never showed up a single stakeholder meeting. Also, the months-old bill didn’t get a price-tag until Monday: about $20 million to start up a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana.

The bill may have survived if it had more broad support, but instead it alienated most marijuana groups like California NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance.

It would be tough for much of the existing industry to obtain a provisional license, they said. Industry employees with a felony could be blocked from getting a mandatory state license. The City of Oakland reportedly opposed it in its final weeks. Sen. Correa and staff also went behind the back of their own stakeholder committee with last-minute amendments to the bill.

Gov. Brown’s Office — for its part — displayed zero leadership.

This stands in stark contrast to Colorado — which has been lauded for strong leadership and really diverse stakeholder working groups that generate broad political support among warring factions across the spectrum; from law and order hard-liners to ultra-liberal cultivators. The entire population of Colorado could fit in the Bay Area with room to spare, though.

California is the eighth-largest economy in the world, encompassing communities with diametrically opposed beliefs. In San Francisco, about two dozen dispensaries are a taxed, regulated and largely a non-issue. In conservative Fresno, cultivating one medical marijuana plant can bring government inspectors to your door. For many, that’s a reasonable solution. But for others trapped in access deserts, or living next to a grow house, or combatting environmental carnage, it’s an unacceptable detente. More than 80 percent of Californians support medical marijuana.

We are now 27 months away from a likely vote on legalizing cannabis for adults 21 and over in California. During that time, opponents will critique any legalization plan as inadequate given the sprawling state’s inability to regulate the much-smaller medical marijuana industry. About 53 percent of Californians claim to support legalization.