California lawmakers are, again, getting close to adopting the state’s first system to regulate medical marijuana. Even if they’re 20 years late and it’s difficult to craft laws for a largely lawless industry, legislators must not let another session end without passing a comprehensive bill to license and control medical marijuana.
The state Senate and Assembly each approved legislation to establish a framework for regulating medical cannabis from seed to sale, though the versions differ in who will handle the licensing and enforcement of the new laws. The Senate bill, SB 643, would create a new Office of Medical Marijuana Regulation that would establish rules for the industry and issue licenses to people who grow, transport and sell cannabis. The Assembly bill, AB 266, would create the Governor’s Office of Marijuana Regulation to oversee the new regulatory system, but the work of licensing and enforcement would be done by several state departments with expertise in agriculture, medical products and taxation.
Whichever model the legislators settle on, California needs a sensible, workable and enforceable regulatory system. The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 encouraged state officials to implement a plan to regulate safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to patients. When lawmakers failed to act, cities and counties developed a patchwork of local rules, mostly governing dispensaries. But there are virtually no regulations on how marijuana is grown or processed, and no consumer protections for a product that, ostensibly, is for sick people. The U.S. Department of Justice has said that California needs to properly regulate medical marijuana or the federal government will continue to raid and prosecute cannabis operations.
There is still a lot of work to be done. Lawmakers need to merge the best aspects of the two bills into one piece of legislation. They’ll have to decide whether medical marijuana should be organic by 2022, as one bill would require, and whether individuals with felony drug trafficking convictions should be barred from working in the industry, as the other bill proposes. Other issues that remain open are whether to restrict where marijuana can be grown commercially, whether to allow vertically integrated cannabis companies and how to find the right balance between statewide regulation and local control over individual operations.
Gov. Jerry Brown has stayed on the sidelines in the past, but that cannot continue. He and his appointees will ultimately be responsible for managing and overseeing the implementation of these regulations. Brown should be involved in legislation, and he should empower state agencies to weigh in now and help craft the smartest, most functional system possible.