Deal to Regulate Medical Marijuana is Struck. What is it?

Off to play the slots!

Yes, there is a “deal” in place to regulate California's first-in-the-country cannabis industry, and just in time.

A little more than 24 hours before Friday night's deadline to pass laws this year, Sacramento legislators involved in the process announced the “historic” detente in a flurry of congratulatory press releases late last night.

For the first time, an office in Sacramento would oversee the state's cannabis industry in a way not unlike how alcohol is regulated (more on that later).

If three pieces of legislation can survive two committee votes and another two votes on both floors of the Assembly by midnight tonight, the deal will go to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. (And, somehow, Willie Brown was even involved).

Absent from the back-slapping: the deal itself. What is it? As of Friday morning, there was no new language in the bills themselves — Assembly Bill 266, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda); Senate Bill 643, state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Senate Bill 243, Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsurg).

According to sources, the “deal” was how to divide up language circulated by the governor's office two weeks ago. The language, and the people still working to undermine it, after the jump.

[jump] California voters first allowed use of medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, we have seen only one meaningful package of legislation that dictates how the drug is supposed to be grown, processed, and passed on to consumers: Senate Bill 420, in 2003. 

In that time, as other states have approved strictly-regulated medical marijuana industries — following direction from the federal Justice Department — lobbyists and lawmakers in California have tried several times to come up with rules that would please both the cannabis industry and weed-unfriendly forces like the state's powerful law enforcement lobby.

A deal fell apart at the eleventh hour last year. This year, with a recreational cannabis voter initiative likely to be on 2016's ballot, there was a real sense of urgency to finally get a handle on the multibillion dollar cannabis industry.

While some cities license and inspect dispensaries, there are no statewide rules.

All summer long, the cannabis industry has been negotiating with the League of California Cities, the Police Chiefs Association, and organized labor to concoct something agreeable to all parties.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown — whose ultimate approval any agreement would need — stayed silent. 

In the last week of August, Brown's administration issued via back channels his preferred vision for a regulated California cannabis industry. Activists earlier this week posted a copy. Here it is below — and if you doubt its veracity, compare the first chapter, which regulates doctors who write medical marijuana recommendations, to the first chapters in the latest versions of the Bonta and McGuire bills.

GOVERNORS DRAFT: Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act by Mickey Martin

The “deal,” then, was how to best divide Brown's language between Bonta, McGuire, and Wood. All three wanted credit, according to sources — McGuire represents the pot-producing Emerald Triangle, and Bonta had been working on this the longest — and it took until last night, with the deadline bearing down, to sufficiently manage egos. 

As written, the bill would create a Sacramento-level office that would license “commercial cannabis activity.” Dispensaries, cultivation sites, and cannabis testing labs would all need state permits. Local cities and counties would be allowed to regulate commercial marijuana enterprises further, or ban them outright.

Small medical cannabis grows for individual patients would not require licenses.

What the licenses would cost, and how big an operation would need a permit, is still undecided. That would be up to the head of the new marijuana regulation office, who would be appointed by the governor. 

Coming to an agreement on anything in Sacramento is no small feat. This long-awaited regulatory structure has approval from the California Cannabis Industry Association, labor union United Food and Commercial Workers, and the police chiefs and League of California Cities.
There is some opposition from hard-line patient activists who call the regulation a move towards a big-money monopoly on marijuana in California, but it does not appear that they'll be able to halt the process.
So what's left? Nothing but a flurry of last-minute approval in both houses of the Legislature. Not exactly easy, and neither is it guaranteed. 

It'll be a busy day in Sacramento. Check back later to see what finally made it through.

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