It's still an educated guess just how many people in California use medical cannabis — that is, get legally stoned — and whether the state's legal marijuana industry is a billion-dollar one or merely in the high hundreds of millions. Those who could tell us, the bean-counters in Sacramento, haven't counted since 2007 (though they still cash the tax checks).
As for why, it's the same old reason: No statewide regulations on weed means no uniform business license or registration for the state's cannabis dispensaries. This puts localities in charge, which doesn't always work.
At all. In San Jose, there are no rules on the books for pot stores. There were, until the City Council passed strict regulations strongly disliked by cannabis purveyors, who nullified them at the ballot box. But since nothing was put in their place, San Jose simply declared weed stores illegal. Official policy is to close down the more than 80 San Jose clubs, which would send the pot smokers in Northern California's largest city to Oakland and San Francisco to buy legal weed.
This is what we get, thanks to an unregulated and erratic mess that's persisted for years. Even the feds are sick of it, with Attorney General Eric Holder all but pleading with California to come up with a set of rules and a bureaucracy for cannabis in a memo last August.
Will no one rid us of this turbulent pest?
California's law enforcement lobby has for two straight years blocked reform attempts that, while far from beloved, are mostly supported by the state's cannabis industry. The inaction frustrates everyone and pleases no one, so this year, a different set of rules will be pushed by a different group: the law enforcement lobby.
"We're going to try to regulate, since the Legislature hasn't stepped up to do that," says Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chief's Association and chief of police in the L.A. suburb Covina.
A cannabis industry regulated by cops would certainly be easier to manage. It would also be smaller. A lot smaller — just look at Covina, which has no dispensaries (its only legal weed sales are by delivery). The law enforcement line is that two percent of medical cannabis recommendations written by a physician are legitimate. For the rest, "it's turned into a cover for recreational use," says Raney, who believes that medical weed, though helpful for some, was a strategic move by anti-prohibitionists to open the door for legalization.
"That's the hypocrisy that's going in California," he says, "and it's causing problems in our communities."
This hard line isn't a fringe view among police. There are plenty of men and women in blue in San Francisco who agree with Raney. The police chiefs have made their great dislike for "legal" weed known for years, circulating papers to cops all over the state that say weed stores are covers for criminal gangs who sell pot grown in Mexico.
The chiefs are looking at greatly limiting who can write a medical marijuana recommendation, and what a recommendation would allow, all under oversight from the California Medical Board. They're proposing to allow cities and towns the ability to ban medical weed outright if they like, and putting some sort of "stoned driving" law on the books.
Raney says any set of cop-written rules is still in the "concept phase," and about a month away from refinement. However, word in Sacramento is that law enforcement is circulating a draft through the Capitol right now, testing the waters to see which lawmakers might be willing to close the gap that California's 1996 medical marijuana law has left open for 17 years.
At least the police aren't blaming the weed-heads for all this, or the nationwide polls that show the public is in favor of legal pot. They blame Obama.
"There's been a lack of leadership at the federal level," says Raney, who called the president's recent groundbreaking statement that cannabis is no worse than alcohol "irresponsible."
Law enforcement across the board is displeased with the president. That line is being repeated even by Obama's own people: DEA chief Michele Leonhart reportedly slammed the president at a sheriff's conference in Washington state a few weeks ago for not using federal resources to overturn voters' choice to legalize in that state and in Colorado.
As the country moves closer and closer to legalization, cops will be looking for ways to fight back. If anti-drug California cops succeed in writing the state's new marijuana rules, a big-time industry would suddenly shrink or go black-market — and turn an awful lot of people into criminals overnight.