California lawmakers quietly passed Friday the state’s most significant medical-marijuana legislation in almost two decades, but some leaders in the space worry that the law’s good intentions could get lost in the weeds. Paving the way for what supporters say is a much-needed regulatory framework for the state’s multibillion-dollar medical-cannabis industry, the California Senate and Assembly voted to approve the historic Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which will require licenses for cannabis dispensaries and create a new state agency to oversee the industry.
Although California residents voted to approve medical marijuana back in 1996, a regulatory plan has until now eluded policymakers, who could not seem to agree on specifics. Legislators finally reached a compromise on three bills, which have been sent for final approval to Gov. Jerry Brown, who is expected to sign them into law. The legislation was approved as part of a comprehensive package pushed through on the final day of the 2015 session.
Despite the historic achievement, some leaders in the field expressed concerns about the implications of regulating an industry that has been unregulated for so long. Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of the ArcView Group, mammoth marijuana-investment firm, and the Harborside Health Center, a nonprofit dispensary in the state, said in a statement Saturday that the time pressures made it impossible for state legislators to adequately consider the impact the new law will have on patients who depend on medical cannabis.
“[S]ome of the language in the bill is unclear or may be in conflict with prior legislation,” said DeAngelo, also the health center’s executive director. He added that the center hopes to work with lawmakers in the next session to address and resolve what he called “outstanding issues.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers who approved the measure say they had waited long enough. “We knew it had to be done this year,” Assemblymember Rob Bonta, a Democrat who authored one of the bills, told the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Washington.
Nipping Progress In The Bud
Although California was the first state to approve medical marijuana, supporters of progressive cannabis laws say the Golden State is at risk of being left behind at a time when the recreational use of the drug promises to spur huge industries in states such as Colorado and Washington. In Washington alone, legal pot sales generated more than $70 million in tax revenue for state and local governments in just one year, the Associated Press reported.
A voter initiative to legalize marijuana in California is expected to appear on the ballot in November 2016. ReformCA, an initiative of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, has been building support for the cause for some time, and last year the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy organization, filed paperwork with the secretary of state's office registering a campaign committee, as AP reported.
“We feel our pressure on them is what caused the [Legislature] to feel it had to act,” Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform,” told International Business Times in an email. “This pressure was very intentional.”
In the meantime, the legislation approved Friday would create -- in theory, at least -- a working template for how recreational marijuana might be regulated assuming it were to become legal. The bills will also allow for the creation of a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation within the Department of Consumer Affairs, which will oversee licenses.
Controversy or no, the historic significance of the new legislation is readily apparent. Some local media outlets, such as the Sacramento Bee, reported that one of the reasons for the delay was that lawmakers had been arguing over who would take credit for the new legislation. Let the trailblazing begin.
This story has been updated to reflect input from the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform.