No fan of marijuana legalization, Jerry Brown offers partly baked regulation

A clerk weighs medical marijuana. With recreational cannabis legalized in California, state lawmakers are finalizing rules.
A clerk weighs medical marijuana. With recreational cannabis legalized in California, state lawmakers are finalizing rules. aalfaro@sacbee.com

Not to get lost in the weeds on this 4/20, but Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to implement Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s vision for legalizing recreational marijuana use needs tweaking.

We don’t blame Brown. It’s complicated and the January 2018 deadline is fast approaching when the state is supposed to start issuing licenses to retailers and others.

The governor took no stand on Proposition 64, Newsom’s legalization initiative in 2016. But as is his duty, Brown has proposed legislation to meld Newsom’s measure with existing regulation of medicinal marijuana, written in 2015. On Tuesday, a budget subcommittee chaired by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, will begin reviewing Brown’s proposal.

“There is still a lot of work to do,” Cooper told an editorial board member Wednesday. We agree.

So do the California Police Chiefs Association and League of California Cities, which represent the officials who will be most responsible for handling the impact of full legalization. They have detailed no fewer than 16 complaints. Brown and legislators should heed their critique.

They raise serious questions about inspections, taxation, licensing, disclosure to consumers about pesticide use and more. Brown’s proposal omits language that would prohibit marijuana retailers from concentrating in troubled parts of town. California must avoid repeating mistakes that opened the way for too many liquor stores to locate in poor urban neighborhoods.

The governor’s plan separates medical and recreational marijuana, requiring that dealers not sell them in the same establishments. That makes sense.

If the feds crack down on marijuana, as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has suggested, they most likely would home in on sellers of recreational weed, not medical marijuana that can relieve some ailments.

But since medical marijuana isn’t taxed, local officials worry that consumers could avoid paying local sales taxes by buying their product at medical marijuana dispensaries. There must be a way of ensuring that users pay taxes. Otherwise, cities could lose $23.7 million a year or more.

In 2015, Newsom issued a report as a prelude to the 2016 legalization initiative. That report warned about vertical integration, saying it could “force large numbers of small incumbent growers into rushed and perhaps unwanted ‘shotgun marriages’ with retailers.”

Brown’s proposal would eliminate a requirement in California’s 2015 medical marijuana legislation that says growers must use independent distributors to deliver their products. A so-called third-party distribution model, similar to one used for liquor, might benefit the Teamsters union, which would seek to organize the drivers. But it also is intended to limit monopoly control of the industry.

If growers can package and distribute their products, a few major players could dominate the business and would have no incentive to distribute cannabis grown by smaller farmers.

Voters made clear they wanted to legalize recreational marijuana. Newsom and other backers of Proposition 64 promised the industry would be regulated well. Now with its implementation, Brown and others are finding that, as ever, the devil is baked into the details.