SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A bill aimed at bringing order to California's medical marijuana economy cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday as pot advocates and law enforcement groups lined up for another clash over the drug.
Legislation to create statewide regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries passed the Assembly's public safety committee by a 4-2 vote along party lines, with Democrats supporting the bill.
"There is no doubt that an industry exits around medical cannabis," said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the San Francisco Democrat who proposed the measure. "The point of regulation is to bring these activities above-board to ensure safe and effective access."
California was the first state in the country to legalize marijuana for medical use when voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996. The ballot measure allows a doctor to recommend medical marijuana for nearly any ailment and has led hundreds of loosely regulated retail storefronts selling pot across the state.
Cities like San Francisco and Oakland have longstanding local ordinances that create a permitting process for medical marijuana dispensaries that allows them to operate much like other legal businesses. Other communities have used zoning laws to effectively outlaw the dispensaries altogether.
California's patchwork of rules and guidelines, along with Proposition 215's broad language, contrast with medical marijuana laws in other states that spell out in detail what ailments qualify for use of the drug and who can grow and distribute it. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and federal prosecutors across the state have led a crackdown over the past several months against California pot dispensaries.
Ammiano's bill would establish a nine-member medical marijuana board within the state's Department of Consumer Affairs. The board would judge registration applications from businesses, develop rules for running dispensaries and issue fines and penalties, among other functions.
Cities and counties would have to allow at least one medical marijuana dispensary per 50,000 residents.
The proposal would also make getting or giving a doctor's medical marijuana recommendation on false pretenses a misdemeanor.
At Tuesday's committee hearing at the state capitol in Sacramento, medical marijuana advocates argued that the bill's provisions to regulate pot dispensaries would give clarity to law enforcement, local officials and patients. Unions that have organized medical marijuana workers also showed up to support the bill.
"We were around for the end of Prohibition," said Barry Broad, a Teamsters lobbyist supporting the bill. "What you do at the end of prohibition is regulate the living daylights out of an industry so that it operates honestly."
Law enforcement groups against the bill said it was too open-ended and would interfere with the right of local governments to regulate medical marijuana as they saw fit. The bill explicitly pre-empts California's current patchwork of local regulations in favor of statewide rules.
"This is not regulation, this is open-ended permissiveness," said John Lovell, a lobbyist who has long represented law enforcement groups such as the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Narcotics Officers Association in their opposition to legislation they see as liberalizing the state's marijuana laws.
After Tuesday's passage, the bill goes next to the Assembly appropriations committee.