Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is crafting the framework for medical marijuana regulations in California, a session-closing play that could end nearly two decades of clashing interpretations and court battles.
With the Legislature scheduled to leave town next week, Brown’s office is said to be bearing down on the details of a compromise medical cannabis measure, legislation that would have implications for the push to place a recreational marijuana legalization initiative on the 2016 statewide ballot.
While Brown’s office is not commenting, legislators and groups with a stake in the issue confirmed over the last week that the Democratic governor’s administration has stepped in to help develop a bill. Last week, legislative leaders stripped the contents of several medical marijuana-related measures and linked them with boilerplate language, establishing a new entry point for Brown’s aides.
“The Governor’s Office has been very heavily involved,” dedicating an estimated 12 hours to the issue last weekend, said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who authored one of the medical cannabis bills. “They’ve brought forward some different views on how to structure it, which I think people are pretty comfortable with.”
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“I’m feeling like we’re a week out and we have wide (support for acting) ... trying to bring this thing home,” he added.
One of the sticking points has centered on which department will oversee and enforce the regulations. Though one proposal called for the formation of a so-called Governor’s Office of Marijuana, Brown may be more amenable to assigning the responsibility to another agency, Cooley said. He also acknowledged simmering tensions between the two legislative chambers.
“I feel the governor’s staff has played a very important role” in managing anxieties between the houses. “To have the Governor’s Office say here’s where we think the center lies, here’s a reasonable balancing, that’s actually helped.”
“Instead of sitting on our hands, we have come together in a bipartisan fashion to find a solution on how to regulate medical marijuana that works for all our local communities,” added Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who also carried one of the medical marijuana bills.
But Lackey, a former California Highway Patrol officer, is among those who remain concerned about the rise in drugged driving. He said the bill would “pave the way” for a comprehensive study on marijuana-specific field sobriety tests, and “other strategies to detect stoned drivers that law enforcement can begin to utilize.”
Marijuana – medical, and otherwise – remains illegal under federal law. In 1996, Californians voted to decriminalize the drug for medical purposes, but the lack of statewide guidelines has caused many cities and counties to struggle to assert their control over mushrooming pot dispensaries.
Though some localities allow for cultivation and dispensing medical pot, others use zoning and various local ordinances to enforce all-out prohibitions.
At least part of the impetus for finally putting in place controls is the probable measure aimed for next year’s ballot to legalize recreational marijuana. Brown has been publicly skeptical about legalizing marijuana, but he’s taken a more nuanced stance on medical marijuana and the patients comforted by the drug. In July, he signed a bill barring hospitals from denying organ transplants to medical marijuana users solely based on their use of the drug.
Meanwhile, past state attempts to bring statewide regulations were stymied by incompatible priorities from interests out to protect their roles in the industry as well as by law enforcement groups that generally oppose the proliferation of a federally illicit drug. Lawmakers, moreover, have been unwilling to cast votes for proposed regulatory schemes because of the state’s conflict with federal law and divided public opinion.
John Lovell, a senior policy adviser to the California Police Chiefs Association, said his clients would remain on board with new regulations so long as they mirrored the earlier legislation authored by Cooley.
“We are certainly hopeful that a bill that protects public safety and protects local control will emerge from the process,” Lovell said. “The administration’s involvement and engagement is a positive development in moving a bill forward.”
Still, he and others cautioned not to view that development as evidence of a done deal.
Said Lovell: “I think it’s too early to determine if action can be taken.”