Capitol Alert

Plan to regulate medical marijuana heads to Jerry Brown

After years of false starts and nearly two decades after California legalized cannabis for medical purposes, lawmakers Friday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a legislative package to regulate the billion-dollar industry.

Medical marijuana would be newly defined as an agricultural product with rules for water use, discharge and pesticides, and would be tracked and tested through the process.

The trio of bills would allow for testing and labeling of edible marijuana, overseen by the Department of Public Health, and prevent environmental degradation like water diversion via the Department of Food and Agriculture, which would also manage cultivation.

Overseeing it all and tasked with handling transportation and distribution licenses would be a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, housed within the Department of Consumer Affairs and headed by a director who would need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Everyone involved in the cannabis industry, from cultivators to dispensary owners, would need to receive two licenses: one from the state and one from their local city or county. By requiring a local license, the legislation would allow municipalities with bans or restrictions to keep them in place. They also could put before voters taxes on cultivation and retail, in addition to the sales taxes on marijuana, and could designate fees to recoup regulation costs.

Many people with past felony convictions could not get a license unless they have obtained a certificate of rehabilitation, a provision sure to frustrate advocates who argue such a prohibition falls heavily on minority communities.

The deal does not include a excise tax for environmental cleanup and public safety because that would have required a two-thirds vote.

California is one of 23 states, along with Washington, D.C., that allow medical marijuana use.

The compromise package, crafted in the last several days by Brown’s administration, ends nearly two decades of political intransigence on medical marijuana. California voted to decriminalize the drug for medicinal purposes in 1996, and now is one of 23 states, plus Washington, D.C., to allow medical marijuana.

Year after year, attempts to pass statewide controls on grows and distribution faltered under the weight of industry infighting, law enforcement hostility and the unwillingness of state lawmakers to establish guidelines for a drug that has not traditionally provided many electoral advantages and remains illegal under federal law.

Last year, a police-backed medical marijuana bill by former Sen. Lou Correa of Orange County died in an Assembly Committee after critics derided it as too restrictive. It competed with an industry-supported bill by then-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano that also went down.

But this year appeared to hold more promise. Lawmakers said they were impelled this year by the recognition that a wave of voter initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana across the West will almost certainly place a ballot initiative before voters in 2016. The federal government has advised that it will not crack down on states that allow cannabis use under a well-defined regulatory structure, so California’s effort could offer a reprieve from years of federal raids.

Medical marijuana advocates stepped up their professional presence in Sacramento with fundraisers and workshops. Law enforcement groups out to protect public safety, labor unions who want to further organize the marijuana workforce and cities and counties intent on preserving local control and taxation were finally on the same page.

As the session drew to a close, however, that progress was threatened by what supporters characterized as a shortsighted turf war among legislators and Capitol staffers over who would claim credit.

The action by Brown’s office came weeks ahead of expected proposals for next year’s ballot to legalize recreational marijuana. Lawmakers involved in the push, including Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, said they were motivated to act before initiative drafters could put their stamp on the cannabis industry.

We will not let someone freelance in a state of nearly 40 million people these kinds of important public safety and public health policies.

Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova

“By the Legislature acting though this deliberative process, putting this framework together, the issues this bill addresses will not be superseded by a ballot initiative,” Cooley said in an interview. “We will not let someone freelance in a state of nearly 40 million people these kinds of important public safety and public health policies. That is a colossal benefit. And it actually is historic.”

Much of the criticism in the final days focused on who would be eligible to work in the industry. Law enforcement groups were adamant that certain felons be banned from operating dispensaries. On the other side, Alice Huffman, president of the NAACP in California, lobbied for an exemption for some felons who have not re-offended in the last five years.

“The issue we care about I think short of got short-shrifted in the rush to get it done,” Huffman said.

Former Assemblyman Rusty Areias, representing Harborside Health Center, perhaps the state’s best know collective operator, said he was “aghast” at the speed of the legislation, copies of which were distributed to the media Friday.

“Twenty years to get to this point. And the paper is still hot,” Areias said. “Nobody has seen this bill. Nobody has read this bill. And, we’re going to pass this legislation ... This is important legislation, probably one of the most important this year. And the people of California deserve better.”

He added, “I served a lot of time in this body, and we didn’t always read all of the bills, but we read the important bills.”

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, one of the authors of the bills, said people with marijuana-related felonies would not be kept out of the industry. He and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, added that much of the language in the three bills were introduced months ago.

Lawmakers portrayed the votes as a victory that shattered years of stalemate. Cooley said that he reached out to Correa and Ammiano with a text message:

“You plowed. You planted. Today is harvest day.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago