POLITICS
04/09/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2014

California's Medical Marijuana Industry Gets A Much-Needed Kick In The Pants

After multiple failed attempts at regulating California's haphazard medical marijuana program, one state lawmaker has introduced legislation he believes will finally establish some order to the state's multibillion-dollar industry.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), whose measure, introduced last month, would create a statewide set of rules for California's marijuana businesses. "People have seen that the more regulation you have, the less chaos you have."

In recent years, Ammiano has sponsored a number of similar bills, each of which has stalled or was stopped by opponents who argued the legislation didn't address key issues, such as the environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation or the ability of local governments to tax the product. Ammiano says his latest measure, AB 1894, addresses every concern and more.

California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes when voters passed the landmark Proposition 215 in 1996. But since then, the state has failed to establish uniform regulations to govern the industry, leaving the implementation of a vague medical cannabis law to local municipalities instead.

Some cities, like Oakland and San Francisco, have enacted clear-cut rules that dictate where dispensaries can operate and levy fees that generate revenue for local government. Other places, like Los Angeles and San Diego, remain largely unregulated, with very little control over the number of dispensaries or the criteria for doctor recommendations.

Since marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, the lack of a statewide standard has left California vulnerable to crackdowns. Since 2011, the Obama administration has shut down medical cannabis businesses throughout the state on the grounds that the industry has spiraled out of control. Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided several dispensaries in Los Angeles, and a pot shop in Mendocino, closed by federal authorities earlier this year, only recently reopened.

By contrast, federal authorities have had been less aggressive in states with more strict regulations. Dispensaries in Colorado, for example, have faced fewer DEA raids, and federal authorities have largely allowed the state's new recreational, adult-use marijuana program to operate in peace. Late last year, Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that the federal government would not intervene in states that had "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."

"While statewide regulations won't change federal law, it does seem to be the case that states that have uniform, clear regulations are less likely to be interfered with by the feds," Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell told HuffPost. "It's very confusing in California right now: a patchwork of regulations city to city and county to county."

Ammiano's bill would create a division within California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to regulate all medical marijuana-related entities throughout the state, from the farmers that cultivate the plant to the storefronts that sell it. The bill does not impose any restrictions on the doctors who prescribe cannabis or their patients. Similar legislation, introduced by state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) in March, has faced criticism from pro-pot groups for the restrictions it places on doctors and patients.

Under Ammiano's proposal, the ABC would charge fees on marijuana businesses to raise revenue for the state. Local municipalities would also be allowed to impose additional taxes. "Everyone who has a business pays some taxes," Ammiano said. "Without regulation, there's no way to capture any of the income that could go toward our infrastructure or other worthy causes."

Some experts believe Ammiano's bill could lay the groundwork for the full-scale legalization of marijuana in California.

"One of the reasons that [California's 2010 initiative to legalize marijuana] didn't pass is because many communities had an unpleasant experience with cannabis regulation," Steve DeAngelo, co-founder and executive director of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the country's largest medical marijuana dispensary, told HuffPost last year.

Recent polls have suggested a majority of Californians support legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. A national drug reform coalition, backed by Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom, plans to put a legalization initiative on the state's 2016 ballot.

In the meantime, advocates believe strict statewide rules are a necessary next step. "We need to show that California has the ability to regulate marijuana," Angell said. "This would help further demonstrate how tax revenue can be generated and put into needed programs."

Ammiano's bill will be heard by the California Assembly's Public Safety Committee later this month.

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