Thursday, May 16, 2013

AB 473: Turd Stew's Worst Enemy

State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D - San Francisco) recently introduced a bill in the state legislature that could finally bring some clarity to the convoluted mess surrounding California's tangled medical marijuana laws.  This blog regularly refers to CA's current MMJ framework as "turd stew", because it's murky, it's unappealing, and it's not what any of us ordered.

As previously discussed here, California voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 215 (commonly referrred to as the "Compassionate Use Act", or "CUA") in 1996, which exempted "qualified patients" from most marijuana-related laws.  Those protections were extended in 2003 under SB 420 (also known as the "Medical Marijuana Program", or "MMP").  The MMP allowed patients to "collectivize" in order to help each other procure their medication.  MMP "collectives" quickly evolved into storefront dispensaries that served walk-in "patients".

As dispensaries proliferated over the following decade, cities and counties struggled with many unforeseen effects of marijuana's quasi-legal status.  In the absence of adequate zoning regulations, fly-by-night dispensaries sprung up (often without business licenses) in apartment buildings, near schools and in other sensitive locations.  Neighbors complained about crime, traffic, noise, odors, and related concerns.  Without any sort of legal oversight or inspection process, growers stole electricity by circumventing electrical meters.  Unpermitted outdoor grows contaminated waterways and damaged sensitive fish spawning grounds.  Meanwhile, patients had no way of knowing if their cannabis was tainted with pesticides (or actual pests), mold, etc.

Cities and counties experimented with various methods of controlling the heretofore unchecked proliferation of storefront dispensaries.  As previously discussed on this blog, the city of Long Beach implemented a lottery system, whereby applicants paid huge fees for a chance to win one of a limited number of "dispensary licenses".  Other cities imposed zoning restrictions or prohibited the shops altogether.  Californian patients were left with a mishmash of local laws that varied wildly from town to town.

Ambiguities within the existing laws were filled in by the courts, sometimes with contradictory results.  Consequently, there is still very little agreement in California today over what the various laws actually mean.  This is, in a nutshell, how we achieved today's current state of "turd stew" -- just a big, steaming bowl of something we don't even recognize.

As if things weren't bad enough already for Californian medical marijuana patients, enter the DEA.  The Obama administration began an aggressive new policy of targeting medical marijuana collectives in 2011.  Publicly, the Justice Department stated that it would not go after any clubs that were in "clear and unambiguous compliance with state laws".  Unfortunately, NOBODY is in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with CA law because nobody understands what CA law actually is.  As a result, every clinic in CA is subject to a federal raid at any time.  This has created a climate of fear and uncertainty among dispensary operators and patients.

Fortunately, help could finally be on the way.  Assemblyman Ammiano, longtime friend of the decrim community, has introduced a prescription that could help alleviate MMJ's growing pains.  His proposed law, AB 473, would allow the state's Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (the "ABC") to create reasonable rules and regulations to more uniformly govern the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana.  The bill would impose uniform fees and taxes upon businesses engaged in the sale of marijuana.  Proceeds derived from those fees would be deposited into a "Medical Marijuana Fund", which would then be used to administer and enforce the law.  The ABC would be charged with ensuring the safety of cannibis provided to patients, as well as preventing harmful cultivation practices and the diversion of marijuana for non-medical uses.

Quintin Mecke, former spokesman to Assemblyman Ammiano, recently told the Huffington Post that the DEA was using the lack of statewide regulation as a justification to enforce a crackdown on local cannabis clubs.  Said Mecke, "If we create regulations, we've removed every reasonable explanation on their part to justify the crackdown."

CA NORML and other patient groups have unanimously endorsed the proposed bill.  Medical marijuana advocates hope that new regulations will ensure safe access to medical cannabis while helping to reduce or eliminate many of the negative effects that dispensaries have had on communities and preventing future hostile action from the DEA.

The bill is slowly winding its way through committee now.  It cleared a major hurdle in April when the Committee on Public Safety voted to recommend its approval.  The bill now goes back to the Committee on Appropriations for further amendments and analysis of the law's fiscal effects.

AB 473 has the potential to create a huge impact on CA MMJ law by ensuring public safety and reducing many of the harms currently associated with the medical marijuana industry.  We can expect a long, arduous fight as this bill works its way through the legislature.  Police unions have joined forces with the California District Attorneys Association to aggressively lobby against the proposed legislation.  Of course, the law enforcement industry will always oppose any common sense approach to marijuana policy reform.

It's too soon to guess whether AB 473 will ever even make it to the floor of the Assembly for a vote.  When (if) the bill ever makes its way out of committee, there remains the chance that amendments, riders, addenda and "tweeks" will render the legislation unrecognizable.  That's what makes this whole process so exciting!

Stay tuned for updates as they become available.  Thanks for reading.