Editorial: California needs to solve medical marijuana mess first

Given how long California has been stuck in its medical marijuana morass, the wisest move is to fix that first. With real-life laboratories in Colorado and Washington state on legal recreational marijuana, it makes sense to wait and watch closely before making pot any more available.

If state legislators do their job, that can be California’s course.

Proponents of the best-financed initiative to legalize marijuana have pulled back from this November’s ballot and have set their sights on 2016, when they believe a larger voter turnout will help their chances. While two other groups are pushing ahead for this year, neither has qualified its initiative for the ballot.

Meanwhile, there are two bills before the Legislature to finally bring some sensible statewide rules to medical marijuana dispensaries, more than 17 years after voters approved Proposition 215.

The goal ought to be to return as much as possible to the original intent of Prop. 215 – compassionate use of marijuana for the seriously ill. Lawmakers should help shield legitimate dispensaries from heavy-handed federal action, while discouraging big commercial operations.

Both bills have their good points. Legislators need to pick the best provisions, putting aside pride of authorship and political ego.

The California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities have joined forces behind Senate Bill 1262, introduced by Lou Correa, a Santa Ana Democrat.

Assembly Bill 604 combines elements of measures introduced last year by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco. Both stalled in the Assembly.

Both SB 1262 and AB 604 would continue to let cities and counties decide whether to allow dispensaries at all – a power affirmed last May by the California Supreme Court. Some cities, such as Sacramento, have permitted a limited number. About 200 local governments, including Sacramento County, have banned them.

Both measures would target the big problem of rogue doctors who write pot recommendations with little regard for actual medical need. Some even “diagnose” patients over Skype.

Under SB 1262, physicians would have to conduct an in-person physical examination and determine the type of marijuana and how it should be ingested. To prescribe pot to minors, they would have to justify why the benefits outweigh the possible neurological damage. Doctors would have to report to the California Medical Board how many recommendations they write; if it’s more than 100 in a year, the board would audit them. These would be important protections.

AB 604 would prohibit marijuana-prescribing doctors from having a financial interest in dispensaries. It says that prescribing pot without a real medical reason should be considered unprofessional conduct and given priority for investigation by the state Medical Board. Also, AB 604 exempts from regulation patients who grow marijuana for their personal use.

Another major difference between the bills is which state agency would be in charge of overseeing dispensaries.

SB 1262 calls for the state Department of Public Health to license dispensaries and growing operations, establish quality control testing and ban the use of pesticides for cultivation. Local health departments would enforce security and other requirements on dispensaries. The state and local agencies would charge as-yet-undetermined fees to dispensaries to cover their costs.

AB 604 would create a new marijuana regulation division under the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

If marijuana is really for medical use, then it does seem to make sense for state and county health departments to oversee dispensaries. Also, ABC has its hands full regulating bars and liquor stores.

Medical marijuana is complicated and controversial enough. Possession for personal use was effectively decriminalized in 2010, made an infraction with a $100 fine. There’s no reason to rush into legalized recreational marijuana, especially since California policymakers can look to Colorado and Washington to see the pros, cons and unintended consequences.

They do, however, need to sort out medical marijuana. It is long overdue for legislators to take up the challenge.