California lawmakers on Friday passed wide-ranging proposals for regulating the medical marijuana industry, which would lay groundwork for state control of the cultivation and sale of cannabis in the event that voters legalize recreational use of the drug next year.
The package of bills, crafted in a compromise between legislative leaders and the governor, would create a new state agency to license medical cannabis dispensaries and require marijuana growers to adhere to the laws and regulations imposed on other farmers, including restrictions on pesticides, insecticides and water use.
“This is better than what we have, the status quo, which is the Wild West,” said Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), one of the architects of the deal.
The measures were taken up in the frenzy that typifies the last days of the legislative year. Lawmakers worked into the night to vote on scores of bills before the clock struck midnight and they had to adjourn.
The home stretch of the 2015 legislative session was marked by fitful, often contentious negotiations over legislation intended to fight climate change, as well as on proposals to raise taxes to repair California roadways and fix funding for Medi-Cal, the state’s ailing healthcare program for the poor.
Already this year, the Democratically controlled Legislature had approved one of the most far-reaching vaccination laws in the nation, barring religious and other personal-belief exemptions for schoolchildren. Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill into law.
Legislators and Brown also extended Medi-Cal to cover immigrants 18 or younger who are in the country illegally. They also ordered California’s public pension funds to divest their holdings in thermal coal.
Lawmakers sent Brown a proposal to allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, modeled after a 1997 Oregon law and strongly opposed by the Catholic Church. Efforts to pass the legislation, after the failure of similar measures in past years, gained momentum after the well-publicized case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian with brain cancer who moved to Oregon last year so she could end her life.
A proposal to combat climate change, championed by Brown and Senate president Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), passed late Friday, but only after a provision to slash gasoline use by half had been stripped out in the face of oil-industry opposition. The remaining components would require utilities in California to procure 50% of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar and would double the energy efficiency in new buildings.
Despite weeks of marathon legislative sessions and a number of late-night, behind-the-scenes negotiations on a variety of pressing issues, lawmakers left behind a stack of unfinished business.
The Legislature failed to address funding for critically needed repairs to dilapidated roads or raising money for state healthcare programs. Brown called special legislative sessions on the issues, with proposed tax and fee increases in the mix for both. There was no Friday deadline for that work.
Among the proposed healthcare funding sources is a fee on medical providers to make up for an impending plunge in federal funding for Medi-Cal.
The possibility remains that lawmakers could return before the new legislative year begins in January to take action on the matters.
As part of the special session on healthcare funding, lawmakers also have been considering a $2-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax to help pay for Medi-Cal. But the prospects for that proposal are unclear. The last time cigarette taxes increased in California was 1998, when voters approved a 50-cent-per-pack levy to fund childhood development programs.
Awaiting action late Friday was a bill to increase the smoking age in California to 21. If approved and signed by the governor, California would join Hawaii as the only states to set the smoking age that high.
Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) said he introduced the bill out of concern that an estimated 90% of tobacco users start before age 21. Raising the minimum age would mean fewer teenagers picking up the habit, said Hernandez, an optometrist.
Tobacco-related disease killed 34,000 Californians in 2009 and cost the state $18.1 billion in medical expenses, according to studies by UC San Francisco. Most states set the legal smoking age at 18; four have set it at 19. Some cities, including New York, have raised it to 21.
The Legislature’s action on regulating medical marijuana comes as momentum builds for a 2016 ballot measure to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, but it has largely been regulated by cities and counties, with rules varying among jurisdictions. Marijuana use remains a crime under federal law.
The proposal was welcomed by Nate Bradley, founder of the California Cannabis Industry Assn., although he said he wanted to see details of the bills before deciding whether he supports the whole package. Bradley said one issue of concern for him and, separately, for former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor-turned-lobbyist Willie Brown, has been that the state not disqualify convicted felons from running pot shops.
That could hurt low-income residents who could not afford attorneys to beat charges, Bradley said.
Brown has been a lobbyist for Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary.
The fate of the aid-in-dying bill rests in the hands of the governor, a former Catholic seminarian. Brown has expressed concerns about how the proposal was handled by legislative leaders. In July, an earlier version of the bill stalled in an Assembly committee. A new version of the bill was revived in August after Brown called the special sessions.
A spokesman for the governor said it was more appropriate for lawmakers to consider the measure during the Legislature’s normal course of business, not in a special session.
“I am confident that the governor will listen to the 75% of Californians who do support this option, that the governor will take into consideration that this is an option for an individual voluntarily to pursue,” said Dan Diaz, Brittany Maynard’s husband. “Ethically this decision belongs with the individual working with his physician. I am hopeful.”
In other Sacramento action Friday, lawmakers sent Brown proposals to:
•Automatically register to vote any eligible Californian who obtains a driver’s license or state identification card — unless the person opts out.
•Increase fines for operating a drone that interferes with firefighters or other emergency personnel and grant immunity to emergency workers who damage a drone.
•Urge him to call a special legislative session on California’s water crisis.
Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.