Reporting from Sacramento -- Fifteen years after California voters legalized medical marijuana, state lawmakers are still struggling with how to regulate and tax what has become a billion-dollar industry fueled by the growing number of pot dispensaries up and down the state.
Lawmakers took steps recently to ban pot shops from residential neighborhoods and give local governments the authority to shut down problem operators. They also rejected proposals to reduce penalties for illegal pot cultivation and protect medical marijuana patients from workplace discrimination.
Some legislators and others who favor the easing of marijuana laws say those actions reflect a political disconnect on an issue that many Golden State residents now consider mainstream. The Legislature’s piecemeal approach, they say, has resulted in a murky regulatory climate that strains law enforcement resources and deprives state coffers of much-needed revenue.
“As usual, legislators feel like they’ve gotta get tough,” said Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “If there’s a problem, we have to pass more laws for people to break. It’s classic legislative syndrome.”
But many city leaders, law enforcement officials and lawmakers counter that some sort of crackdown is necessary, especially in Los Angeles, where hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries opened with no oversight after the city initially failed to enforce a moratorium it imposed in 2007. Across California, shops are suing cities that step up enforcement, challenging local governments’ right to regulate an activity approved by voters.
According to Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, there are between 1,000 and 1,500 dispensaries operating statewide, up from about 400 four years ago.
“You have medical marijuana dispensaries in residential areas where you have children exposed to secondhand smoke from pot smoking,” said Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana). He has proposed legislation, SB 847, that would ban dispensaries within 600 feet of homes and apartments. It recently passed the state Senate.
In the lower house, Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) has focused on the proliferation of dispensaries. In Los Angeles, he said, “there are more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks.”
“The inadequacy of medical marijuana laws has created a Wild West lawlessness,” he said.
Blumenfield has proposed a bill, AB 1300, that would clarify cities’ rights to regulate dispensaries. It easily passed the Assembly and awaits action in the Senate.
Although half of Californians consistently tell pollsters that they favor legalizing marijuana, the issue remains a touchy one for representatives in one of the nation’s most liberal Legislatures, particularly since voters rejected a general legalization measure last year.
Another bill, SB 676, which would allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of marijuana, barely passed the Senate recently. Its author, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), had to reassure his colleagues that the material was not a drug. He shelved another bill, which would have barred employers from discriminating against medical marijuana users, for lack of support.
“Even with 80% of Californians supporting medical cannabis use, the Legislature traditionally has been very frightened by it, which is nonsensical to me,” Leno said.
Others, like Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), are appealing to lawmakers on fiscal grounds. He has proposed a bill, SB 653, to allow local governments to enact an excise tax on medical marijuana, among other items. Tax authorities estimate that the state collects $58 million to $105 million in annual sales taxes on medical marijuana. Counties could capture more revenue with stricter controls, said Steinberg, whose measure passed the Senate last week.
Still, advocates of general legalization say the sheer number of marijuana-related bills moving through the Legislature this year is a victory for their cause, regardless of the measures’ fates. “Marijuana is becoming a staple of California politics,” said Stephen Gutwillig, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), a legalization champion, said the state’s fiscal crisis and its overcrowded prisons are changing the debate, with some law enforcement officials now arguing for looser restrictions.
Ammiano has unsuccessfully proposed giving district attorneys leeway to prosecute cultivation cases as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The sponsor of that measure, AB 1017, was Mendocino County Dist. Atty. David Eyster, who called it a common-sense change to existing law, which mandates that a person “caught growing a few marijuana plants is subject to the same straight felony charge as a profiteer with a marijuana plantation.”
He said current law gives prosecutors more discretion with methamphetamine cases than with marijuana cases.
The arguments won some bipartisan support.
“The public is way ahead of us on this,” said Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton). “It should be our issue as freedom-loving conservatives.… What bigger nanny state can there be than one that sends a person to prison for three years for growing a plant?”
Opponents, including the California Narcotic Officers’ Assn., said the bill would improve the business climate for organized crime.
The Assembly rejected the measure. Ammiano vowed to continue his efforts but predicted the issue would be settled by another ballot initiative as early as next year.
“The people will probably be taking the lead on this,” he said.