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More than one hundred medical cannabis patients and other stakeholders will fan out across the state Capitol Building in Sacramento to talk to California lawmakers about medical cannabis legislation on Monday. They will be talking to Assembly Members and Senators about the Medical Marijuana Organ Transplant Act, a proposed bill by Americans for Safe Access (ASA) that will prevent discrimination against legal patients who need life-saving organ transplants. They will be asking Assembly Members to support SB 1193, a bill by Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) that requires law enforcement to pay reasonable compensation if legal medical cannabis or plants are damaged or destroyed when confiscated as evidence.
The most contentious bill that participants in the CA Citizen Lobby Day will talk to lawmakers and staff about is SB 1262. That bill, coauthored by moderate Southern California Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana ) and progressive Bay Area medical cannabis champion Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), seeks to regulate doctors who recommend medical cannabis and those who cultivate, process, and provide it. The bill is a lightning rod for controversy among patients and industry workers, and debate about its provisions will likely dominate the morning legislative briefing before Monday afternoon’s visits. Senator Lou Correa will be the guest speaker at the briefing on Monday morning at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento.
You may be wondering why ASA supports this controversial bill. The answer is that ASA strongly supports regulation of commercial medical cannabis activity. Our research and experience of more than eleven years with local regulations in California show that sensible regulations preserve safe, legal, and dignified access for patients, while reducing crime and complaints in neighborhoods. That matters for patients (see my previous blog), and other states have already moved much further down the road to permanent access by adopting comprehensive regulations.
Statewide regulations may be most important for legal patients in the state’s vast access deserts – areas with no practical access to medical cannabis collectives or cooperatives. The California Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that cities and counties are allowed to ban these facilities. More than two hundred local jurisdictions have done so already. Some will remain intransigent, but others are looking to the state legislature for a green light to proceed with medical cannabis regulations. Statewide licensing may be just what some rural and southern communities need to push them away from outright bans on patients’ access and towards regulations.
Unfortunately, adopting state regulations has proved difficult. One reason is a lack of consensus among lawmakers and advocates about what to do. Another is powerful opposition from lobbyists representing local governments, who are determined to preserve their right to regulate and ban medical cannabis, and law enforcement, who still struggle to accept the reality of medical cannabis more the seventeen years after voters approved the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215). This year is a milestone for California. The influential California League of Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association have both abandoned their traditional across-the-board opposition to medical cannabis regulation and joined Senator Correa and Assembly Member Ammiano in sponsoring SB 1262. Their support for the bill gives it momentum and broader appeal among lawmakers that was lacking in previous efforts. In SB 1262, advocates finally have a viable legislative vehicle.
I was worried when I heard in January that Senator Correa was bringing a medical cannabis bill sponsored by the League and the Police Chiefs. None of the three share our views on what is best for patients. However, I also recognized that a bill with those credentials would be popular and have support that legislation championed by the medical cannabis industry did not. I knew from years of working with lawmakers and staff in Sacramento that SB 1262 could win.
So what should we do? If we stood on the sidelines and shook our fists at the bill, we were not too likely to be influential. The Author and sponsors did not seem worried about opposition from the medical cannabis industry. Indeed, they anticipated it. When the bill dropped, we realized it was unworkable. ASA opposed the bill early and demanded the removal of language that would have choked off access to doctor’s recommendations in the state. It worked. The offensive language was removed by the Author and we set out on a new path in the state legislature. ASA joined the League and Police Chiefs in supporting the early bare-bones version of SB 1262.
There has been a lot of back-and-forth with the bill. Big portions of Assembly Member Ammiano’s AB 1894, which was soundly defeated on the Assembly floor, were added in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The sponsors have added some problematic language along the way, and committee votes have shaped the bill for better and for worse. Make no mistake – SB 1262 is a flawed bill that bears the scar tissue of legislative compromise. That is how it goes with big, controversial bills like this.
Nevertheless, using support to leverage change has proven to be an effective strategy. We have scored big victories as this bill moved from one successful committee and floor vote to the next. Consider some of these changes:
- ASA was instrumental in keeping regulatory oversight out of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which would have regulated medical cannabis like a vice instead of a medicine.
- ASA succeeded in having regulatory control placed in the Department of Consumer Affairs, an agency with consumer protection and licensing experience.
- Our opposition resulted in the removal of onerous and intimidating restrictions on doctors who recommend medical cannabis.
- ASA helped to remove provisions that would have severely limited access to legal patient under the age of 21.
- We influenced changes to the licensing scheme to make lawful transportation of medical cannabis practical.
- ASA supported the creation of provisional licenses to prevent a disruption in services at existing facilities.
- We helped craft a solution to loosen language regarding local approval of license application to accommodate more applicants.
- We helped remove language that would have barred organizations facing federal prosecution from obtaining a license.
- ASA insisted on flexibility in licensing fees and penalties to accommodate smaller industry players.
- We insisted on language making cooperatives and collectives qualified under Los Angeles’ voter approved medical cannabis ordinance among those qualified for a state license.
- ASA has worked closely with the Authors, staff, and sponsors to influence other aspects of the bill and mitigate harmful proposals.
We are still working on SB 1262 as we approach final committee and floor votes. The Authors remain open to input from ASA, and conversations about lingering concerns continue. Some changes we are actively pursuing include:
- Changing the requirement that local governments specifically permit cultivation projects before the state issues a license
- Allowing applicants to hold more than one category of license at the same time – e.g. cultivation, processing, and distribution
- Deleting the statewide cap on the number of licensed cultivators
- Modifying the language that would prevent anyone with a felony conviction, including a medical cannabis conviction, from holding a license
- Removing the provision that allows counties to impose unlimited taxes on medical cannabis activity
- And more
ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer and I are visiting the Authors’ offices on Monday for frank conversations about ASA’s final position on the bill. Meanwhile, participants in the CA Citizen Lobby Day will be taking ASA’s comments and their own input to legislative offices all over the building. ASA’s support for SB 1262 is contingent on improvements that make the bill more beneficial for medical cannabis patients and other stakeholders. We are calling on the Authors and their colleagues to keep listening to constructive input. They need to amend SB 1262 at the Assembly Appropriations Committee or on the Assembly floor. Patients may not support the bill if that opportunity is missed.
I know ASA’s strategy on SB 1262 is controversial. It is OK if every member, ally, or other advocacy group does not come along. Differing strategies are prudent. In fact, ASA is making a space on lobby day materials for individuals to share their differing opinions on SB 1262 and other bills. We want everyone’s voice at the table. What we all need to do in the final days of this campaign is keep our eyes on the prize. Patients, industry participants, community members, and others have waited too long for the proven benefits of sensible regulation. Let’s make this bill as good as it can get for the stakeholders and finally move the ball down the court in California. We may have bigger agendas to focus on in 2015 and 2016.
You can join the CA Citizen Lobby Day on Monday morning in the Metropolitan Terrace at the Citizen Hotel. Show up at 9:00 AM for registration and a continental breakfast. We are requesting a $25 donation, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
SB 1262 will likely be sent to the Assembly Appropriations Committee suspense file on Wednesday, August 6, and a committee debate and vote are anticipated on August 13. Keep an eye on this blog, ASA’s email list, and our social media feeds for updates (Facebook and Twitter).