By Peter Hecht
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The last time lawmakers tried to regulate California's medical marijuana industry, the League of California Cities warned of "a radical expansion of existing law" and "a slippery slope to distribution of marijuana for recreational use." And police groups rushed out talking points protesting the "creation of a massive, for-profit medical marijuana model."
California cities and police were long considered obstructionists to regulatory legislation they said would legitimize marijuana businesses. But now they are jumping into the marijuana-regulation effort out of fear that the state is inevitably moving toward a sanctioned cannabis industry with or without their input.
Expressing alarm over the changing "marijuana arena," the League of California Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association announced Feb. 21 that they are dropping their policy of "unconditional opposition" to laws sanctioning marijuana businesses in California. They are backing a new bill that would license medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivators while setting new restrictions on doctors recommending marijuana to patients.
A battle looms over language in the bill targeting physicians specializing in medical marijuana. Yet cannabis advocates say the willingness of the two organizations to even consider state oversight is a concession that finally could put California on a path to regulating its teeming marijuana economy.
For the police chiefs and cities, the legislative effort is a recognition that nearly half of Assembly members voted for a bill that would have sanctioned California's cannabis industry by giving the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulatory authority over commercial marijuana stores, gardens, laboratories and warehouses.
The two organizations opposed the legislation by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, contending it would have undercut local authority in policing medical marijuana. The proposal failed on the Assembly floor, but Ammiano has vowed to press it again this year.
The groups also are alarmed by the newly approved legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington — and recent polls showing as much as 60 percent support for legalizing pot beyond medical use in the Golden State. A measure that would expand legalization in California and regulate the industry is expected on the ballot in 2016.
"Our two organizations independently came to realize that although we remain strongly opposed to marijuana use, it is increasingly likely that in the near future some statewide regulatory structure for medical marijuana could be enacted," Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities, and Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the chiefs association, declared in a recent joint letter.
"We also realized that without our proactive intervention, it could take a form that was severely damaging to our interests."
The bill the organizations are backing, Senate Bill 1262 by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, would put the Department of Public Health in charge of licensing medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivators in cooperation with local governments.
"It is the first time the police chiefs and the League of Cities have come to the table at all," said Don Duncan, California director for Americans for Safe Access, a national organization advocating for people who use medical marijuana. "Up until now, they've opposed everything.
"Now this is their proposal. It's flawed. But I'm happy to see they're coming to the table."
Dale Gieringer, California director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said police chiefs and cities advancing a counterproposal for marijuana regulation "is a major breakthrough."
However, Gieringer said NORML will work to kill the bill if it retains language that cannabis advocates see as interfering with a physician's right to recommend marijuana to patients.
The bill would require state audits of doctors giving out more than 100 medical marijuana recommendations and also require that people seeking to use medicinal cannabis obtain recommendations from general practitioners or through medical network referrals. It also would set more stringent rules on marijuana recommendations to minors.
The California Medical Association has not taken a position on the legislation. In a 2011 white paper, the group endorsed legalization and regulation of marijuana for recreational use, arguing that doctors shouldn't be forced into the role of "gatekeepers" for legal marijuana use.
In August, a U.S. Justice Department memo said federal prosecutors wouldn't target compliant marijuana businesses — medical or otherwise — in states enacting "robust" industry regulations.
On Jan. 1, Colorado became the first state to offer retail sales of recreational marijuana, and similar stores are due to open in Washington this spring. Colorado requires state licensing and criminal background checks for all marijuana workers, video surveillance of sales and shipments, and state monitoring of cultivation.
California's billion-dollar cannabis industry has boomed largely without state regulation, and federal prosecutors in 2011 launched a sweeping crackdown on cash-reaping medical marijuana businesses they charged were operating in "an unregulated free-for-all."
"It is time for us to recognize that this industry is exploding as we speak and that we as a society need to have a handle on it," said Correa, the senator carrying the bill.
Duncan, of Americans for Safe Access, said he prefers the model proposed in Correa's bill, giving public health officials oversight of medical marijuana outlets. But other advocates are skeptical. They say placing an oversight agency inside the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is a more effective remedy to satisfy federal demands for robust regulation.
In a statement released by his office, Ammiano said the proposal backed by the cities and police chiefs is poorly crafted legislation that falls short of addressing the spirit of California's 1996 medical marijuana law, Proposition 215.
"The Senate bill comes from sponsors who have been hiding their heads in the sand for years and are finally waking up to the reality of medical marijuana, which voters approved more than a decade ago," Ammiano said in the statement. "It would be too much, then, to expect that their first attempt at regulation would be consistent with what the public and smart policy demands."
Copyright 2014 The Sacramento Bee
McClatchy-Tribune News Service