California Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Dispensary Regulation Bill

LA Dispensary

SACRAMENTO, CA — The California Senate voted 22-12 Monday to pass a medical marijuana dispensary regulation bill and send it to the Assembly for further consideration.

The bill, Senate Bill 439, would take the first steps to regulate the sale of medical marijuana state-wide since California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, legalizing medical marijuana in California.

The legislation would require that medical marijuana dispensaries are non-profit, although dispensary owners would be able to receive “reasonable compensation” and reimbursement for expenses for providing medical marijuana to patients.

The bill comes as a legislative response to a two-year federal crackdown on dispensaries in California by the Department of Justice, who claim that California’s largely unregulated medical marijuana industry has grown enormously profitable and out of control while making medical marijuana easily available for recreational use.

“This bill is not about the legalization of marijuana,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), sponsor o the bill. “It does seek to assure that patients who need medical cannabis have access to it. It is intended to assure that drug cartels and other criminals do not benefit from the lack of regulation.”

Sen. Steinberg says his legislation, along with a separate bill filed in the Assembly by San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano, would create a well-regulated medical marijuana industry that would, hopefully, allow California to come to “some sort of an understanding” with the federal government, who still maintains that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive, and prohibited drug.

Steinberg’s bill would adopt guidelines issued by Gov. Jerry Brown when he was the state’s attorney general in 2008, making it clear that the dispensaries cannot operate at a profit. Those operating within the guidelines could not face state prosecution, although they could still face federal prosecution.

The 2008 guidelines also said dispensaries should track their members and product and take steps to discourage the marijuana from going to those without a legitimate medical need. Steinberg’s bill would put those non-binding guidelines into state law.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said nearly 50 California cities use the 2008 guidelines already to regulate dispensaries in their communities.

In the Assembly, Rep. Ammiano’s bill, Assembly Bill 473, would create a  new agency within the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to regulate the growth, supply and sale of medical cannabis, replacing standards that now vary wildly from one city and county to another.

“It’s never been regulated by the state as any other business,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. “Cities and counties don’t know what to do or what they can do. Police are unsure how to respond, and the federal actions are confusing.”

Although a majority of the hundreds of thousands of legal medical marijuana patients in California rely on dispensaries, the state has so far left regulation up to its localities.

The result is a situation where what is tolerated on one side of a suburban highway may be prosecuted on the other side.

There are currently more than 50 local ordinances, urban and rural, regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, which has led to a patchwork of local laws that serve some patient populations, but not others, forcing many people to travel long distances or use the black market to obtain a strain of medical marijuana that works for them.

This patchwork system has also caused confusion for public officials, and created more work for law enforcement.

The proposed bill hopes to change that by creating the Division of Medical Cannabis Regulation and Enforcement (DMCRE), which would be a part of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The DMCRE  would be empowered to establish statewide standards for the cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation, distribution, and sale of medical marijuana and medical marijuana products, as well as a statewide licensing fee structure.

The bill also requires the DMCRE to develop uniform policies statewide for the taxation of the medical marijuana industry, establish a licence structure and uniform identification card program.

The DMCRE would be required to work in conjunction with state law enforcement agencies to enforce medical marijuana regulations to ensure compliance with the law.

“California has been in chaos for way too long,” says Ammiano. “Cities have been looking for state guidance, dispensaries feel at the mercy of changing rules and patients who need medical cannabis are uncertain about how their legitimate medical needs will be filled.”

Since 2011, when federal prosecutors in the state announced their crackdown on the unregulated medical marijuana industry, the DEA has raided numerous dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, including Oaksterdam University.

In the past two years, hundreds of California dispensaries have shuttered their doors, in part because of the fear of federal prosecution and in part because of local moves against them.