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Editorial: Legislature fails, again, to regulate medical marijuana

Success has many fathers, the saying goes, but failure is an orphan. But plenty of people are responsible for the collapse of a potentially landmark bill enacting the first statewide rules for medical marijuana.

While the measure would not completely fix California’s medical marijuana mess, it would tackle some of the worst abuses that have undermined the original intent of “compassionate care” for seriously ill patients. It at least tries to bring some order to the confusing maze of pot rules across the state. And it was the closest the Legislature had come to a compromise.

So it’s a shame that the bill is all but dead after it was blocked Thursday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Unless proponents miraculously resurrect it before the session ends, a new Legislature could have to start from scratch in January.

Senate Bill 1262 sought to marry the original version of that bill, authored by Sen. Lou Correa of Santa Ana and backed by the state’s police chiefs and cities, with Assembly Bill 604, authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco and defeated on the Assembly floor in May.

The California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities stayed on board with the revised bill. But most industry groups were adamantly opposed, and in the end, Ammiano backed away, saying that the final version “included provisions that would have gutted the industry in some parts of California.”

The marriage fell apart over issues that included criminal background checks for those seeking licenses to run dispensaries, growing and processing operations, and transportation services.

Another major disagreement is local flexibility. While the bill does not preempt local regulations or bans on dispensaries, it does add statewide requirements on security, testing and distribution. That is too much for other local government groups, which say existing regulations are working well for them.

The revised SB 1262 did resolve a major difference between the two earlier proposals – who would enforce statewide regulations. Correa proposed the state Department of Public Health, while Ammiano wanted a new division under the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. In the compromise, a new division within the Department of Consumer Affairs would be in charge and would be funded by license fees. Its director would be appointed by the governor.

The bill also targeted a major problem – unscrupulous doctors who write recommendations for medical pot without verifying there’s a real medical need.

The bill would allow only a patient’s attending physician to write a recommendation and would require a diagnosis to be done in person, or through an approved tele-medicine program. It would also tell the state medical board to put a priority on investigating cases in which physicians make recommendations without a proper exam, and would make it a crime for doctors who write recommendations to have a financial interest in dispensaries.

The continuing impasse is just fine with some interest groups. Those who want to legalize recreational marijuana are pointing toward a possible ballot measure in 2016. Meanwhile, nearly 18 years after voters approved Proposition 215, California remains stuck without common-sense rules on the marijuana that is already legal.

It may not be what Sen. Correa calls “the wild, wild west” of unregulated marijuana; the federal crackdown starting in late 2011 took care of that. But it’s still not a good situation.

It is not easy to bring all the competing interests together on an issue this complicated and with so much money at stake. Still, that’s the Legislature’s job. The lack of a compromise is a failure of imagination and leadership.