California Issues Final Cannabis Regulations

Cal NORML Deputy Director Ellen Komp discusses what the state’s gotten right, and where it still needs to improve.

On Jan. 16, the California Office of Administrative Law (OAL) released its final version of the state’s regulations governing the recreational cannabis market. However, when it comes to regulations, “final” may best be viewed as a somewhat arbitrary distinction.

According to Cal NORML Deputy Director Ellen Komp, some people thought her work was done with the 1996 enactment of Proposition 215 — the Compassionate Use Act.

“I just laughed,” she recalls. “I learned the hard way that we were not even close. Now it’s even worse because there are just so many moving parts to all of it. As Lori Ajax — the head of [California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control] — has been saying for a while now, nothing’s ever permanent in the regulatory world.”

In Komp’s opinion, the latest version of the regulations gets several things right. For one, Cal NORML’s effort to abolish a provision that required both manufacturers and dispensaries to encase purchases in childproof packaging was successful. Starting in 2020, dispensary customers will simply place their purchases into an opaque bag.

Komp is happy to see the provision go, noting that it was overkill to require childproof packaging at multiple junctures — as well as an unnecessary burden, economically and environmentally.

“Those childproof exit bags were not successful,” she confirms. “People were just trashing them outside of the dispensaries.”

As she sees it, the biggest news to come out of the new regulations is actually something that was kept in the law: deliveries. At present, they’re allowed anywhere in the state — even in cities or counties that have opted not to allow for brick and mortar dispensaries to operate.

Komp equates the situation to pizza. If one city doesn’t have a pizza place, there’s nothing to prevent a restaurant from a nearby town from delivering there. At present, roughly two-thirds of California’s counties have yet to move forward with creating a licensing system to permit dispensaries, leaving many who desire to access cannabis to either travel for their purchases or rely on delivery.

Unfortunately, Komp doesn’t feel the final regulations will be the last word on this issue.

“We understand there is probably going to be a court challenge, or maybe more than one, to that regulation,” she says. “We’re hearing rumors that there may be legislation in Sacramento this year to put into law a provision to strike deliveries around the state. The battle will continue this year and maybe further on.”

In addition to Cal NORML’s views on last week’s announcement, Komp and her colleagues feel several matters have yet to be addressed.

One involves the stipulation that an individual can only purchase one ounce of cannabis per day. While the law dictates that no one can have more than an ounce on their person outside of their home, Komp points to the fact that someone could choose to buy an ounce and give it away. In truth, she also sees the rule as a Band-Aid fix for a much more complicated matter: the continued success of the illicit market.

“Obviously, there’s a thriving black market in California,” she says. “I just think it’s crazy that anybody would go into a dispensary and pay full retail markup and all the taxes in order to resell it. I don’t think that’s going to be a big problem.”

To truly address the flagging sales that summarized the first year of recreational cannabis sales in California, Komp believes dispensary customers need to be treated more like someone stopping off for a cocktail or a cold pint of beer.

“This is just not what I envisioned,” she explains, “going and having to show my ID and having everything recorded. You have to sign up and fill things out. I don’t have to do that at a bar.”

Another way Komp feels cannabis would benefit from being treated more like a watering hole is consumption lounges.

“There should be consumption rooms where you can go sit, listen to music, have a bite to eat or something, and use [cannabis]. California’s law does allow for that. I’m hoping to see more of that happening. To me, it’s not fully legal until you can go into a place like you’re going into a bar and actually socialize around it.”

Other areas of focus include lowering taxes, reinstating a tax break for compassionate-care programs, and lowering testing standards to be more in line with other states. Naturally, Komp concludes her assessment by reiterating that whatever California does, nothing will ever be truly settled until the federal government ends cannabis prohibition.

“There are still as many arrests as ever,” she says, “and there’s still a racial disparity in the arrest numbers. The injustice continues, despite these legalization programs. What’s going to ultimately end it is full legalization at the federal level. Then we really have our full rights to employment and everything else.”

California NORML hosts a cannabis-law seminar at the Waterfront Hotel in Oakland on Saturday, Feb. 8.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

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