As if California needed more impetus to tackle its marijuana morass, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder just offered one.
The Justice Department announced last week that while marijuana remains illegal under federal law, it would not block Colorado and Washington state from licensing and taxing the sale of recreational pot – if they police themselves. To stay free of federal interference, the two states must prevent marijuana from being sold to children, stop profits from flowing to gangs and drug cartels, crack down on driving while impaired by drugs and keep marijuana from being grown on public lands, including national forests.
Those are precisely the kinds of reasonable regulations that need to be strengthened in California. But much more needs to be done to return medical marijuana closer to what voters thought they were approving in 1996.
The state should go after prescription fraud so that medical pot is truly for “compassionate” use. It should encourage nonprofit collectives and make it more difficult for profiteers to cash in. It must not ignore the environmental damage being wrought by some marijuana farmers.
Without clear laws, cities and counties are struggling to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, and California’s federal prosecutors are two years into a sometimes heavy-handed crackdown. In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento said last week’s memo reinforces the priorities his office already has in prosecuting marijuana cases.
Yet so far, all the varied interests – local governments, law enforcement agencies, marijuana dispensaries, patient advocates and others – have been unable to come close to a compromise at the Capitol. Marijuana is big business now, so lobbyists are out in force.
For the second year in a row, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, introduced a bill for state regulation and oversight of medical marijuana. Assembly Bill 473, which would have assigned the task to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, narrowly failed on the Assembly floor in late May.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, introduced a more limited bill to shield medical marijuana collectives from criminal prosecution. A version of SB 439 passed the Senate in May, but is stalled in the Assembly Committee on Health. Steinberg’s office told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board on Wednesday that given Holder’s announcement, he may try to move the measure this session.
Legislators have a lot on their plate, but this is an issue worth their attention early next year, in search of a comprehensive, common-sense solution that works for California.