Some marijuana regulation, finally

A bill on the governor’s desk would strengthen the regulation of medicinal marijuana in California.
A bill on the governor’s desk would strengthen the regulation of medicinal marijuana in California. The Associated Press

In the coming days, Gov. Jerry Brown almost certainly will sign a package of three bills that seeks to bring some semblance of order to the wild medical marijuana industry.

Brown, whose aides helped craft the bills, should sign the bills into law. Some regulation will be better than none.

But we remain skeptical, given how disingenuous arguments were in favor of the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana. Fueling our doubts, the final legislation didn’t become public until the last day of the legislative session, Sept.11.

Lobbyists for law enforcement, organized labor, local government and many industry entrepreneurs embraced the deal embodied in Senate Bill 643 and Assembly bills 266 and 243. They include several protections, and a regulatory scheme that anticipates voters will approve an initiative fully legalizing weed.

Oversight would be spread across at least four departments – the Department of Public Health, Food and Agriculture, Pesticide Regulation and a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. Wags studied the latter name and pronounced it “Bummer.” We hope it’s not.

The state would license growers, distributors and retailers, and could deny licenses to people who have serious criminal records. Information about those licenses would become publicly available. However, the public won’t notice many changes until 2018, when the regulations kick in. Agencies responsible for oversight won’t be obligated to submit public reports to the Legislature until 2023.

The measure includes at least two exemptions from the California Public Records Act. One denies access to certain information collected by the Department of Food and Agriculture. Another denies information about medical conditions and patient caregivers. Although advocates of the legislation say the exemptions are narrow, exceptions to government transparency have a way of expanding over time.

Oversight would be spread across at least four departments, including a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. Wags pronounce it ‘Bummer.’ We hope it’s not.

By seeking to trace marijuana from the seed to the store, the state could limit illegal farms in remote areas. That’s potentially a significant environmental protection. The legislation also would help marketers promote their brands by establishing appellations, not unlike wine. Marijuana could be labeled by county or origin, but only if it is grown in that county, presumably a gift to growers in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

Cities and counties could issue or deny permits to retailers and growers. Counties could impose marijuana taxes, and the state could levy fees to cover their costs. But there is no provision for a statewide excise tax on marijuana; there should be.

Employers would retain the authority to maintain drug-free workplaces, the California Chamber of Commerce said in an email to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board. Marijuana industry workers would receive overtime after eight hours on the job. The legislation includes provisions to help unions organize the industry, in exchange for restrictions on the right to strike and picket.

The Medical Board would be expected to police pot doctors more closely, and the legislation does seek to impose additional requirements on physicians. But the state would gain little additional authority to track down feel-good doctors who dispense scripts for minor ailments, as opposed to cancer, glaucoma or AIDS, diseases cited in the 1996 arguments for Proposition 215.

Despite the millions of past and present users, there remains a lack of hard science. The legislation seeks to remedy that by commissioning “objective scientific research by the University of California regarding the efficacy and safety of administering marijuana as part of medical treatment.” There also will be an attempt to develop standards for determining when people are too stoned to drive safely.

The legislation seeks to remedy the lack of consumer protection by requiring the Department of Pesticide Regulation to provide guidance “on whether the pesticides currently used at most cannabis cultivation sites are actually safe for use on cannabis intended for human consumption.”

The Department of Public Health would be responsible for testing potency and identifying pesticides, solvents, processing chemicals, “hair, insects or similar or related adulterants.” Evidently, state-certified marijuana should contain no remnants of roaches.

Our misgivings aside, the bills represent the state’s most serious effort to rein in the buyer-beware business that operates at the far reaches of legality, or beyond. The bills gained bipartisan support. But as California moves toward legalization, we’d like to see less devil in the details. Not that we want to bum anyone out.