California Senate acts to clarify legality of medical cannabis

Nicole Denis, left, and Brennan Thicke help fill medical marijuana prescriptions at the Venice Beach Care Center medical marijuana dispensary in Venice.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Medical marijuana dispensaries that abide by security rules in California would not be subject to local or state prosecution for illegal sales under a measure approved Monday by the state Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) proposed the measure to clarify ambiguous laws on medical marijuana, which was approved for legal use in California by voters in 1996. The current law allowing the sale of medical cannabis has resulted in “needless” arrests and prosecutions, he said.

SB 439 says collectives, cooperatives and other business entities can receive reasonable compensation for the services they provide, and will not be prosecuted as long as they comply with security and reporting guidelines drafted by the state Attorney General.


“It does seek to assure patients who need medical cannabis have access to it,” Steinberg told his colleagues. “It is intended to insure that drug cartels and other criminals do not benefit from the lack of regulation.”

Steinberg said the measure does not interfere with the ability of cities and counties to regulate the local operation of dispensaries.

The vote was 22-12, with Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance joining 11 Republicans in opposition to the measure.

Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) cited a proliferation of medical cannabis dispensaries around the state. “This is a step in the wrong direction and it is contrary to federal law,” Nielsen said during the floor debate.

Nielsen said he shares the concerns of the California Narcotics Officers’ Assn. and the California Police Chiefs Assn. that the bill could expand the kinds of business entities that can get involved in growing and selling marijuana. Proposition 215 allowed marijuana to be provided by caregivers and a separate law expanded it to allow it to be cultivated “collectively or cooperatively.”

That subsequent legislation did not address distribution systems such as store fronts, Steinberg said. The new bill allows sellers to be organized as any statutory business entity permitted under California law.

“This is a major expansion of Proposition 215 that is inconsistent with that original measure,” the two law enforcement groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers. Nielsen said he worries that the bill might lead to the sale of medical marijuana for profit.

Steinberg countered that the State Health and Safety code does not allow “any individual or group to cultivate or distribute marijuana for profit,” and his bill would not change that restriction. The bill next goes to the state Assembly for consideration.


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