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California Moves One Step Closer To Ending Medical Marijuana 'Chaos'

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MEDICAL MARIJUANA
A large jar full of GT Dragon, a cannabis strain created by cross-breading Trainwreck and Blue Dragon, sits on display at the Buenas Ondas Collective, a San Diego medical marijuana delivery service, at the 2014 Cannabis Cup on the grounds of the NOS Event Center in San Bernardino, California. (Photo by David Walter Banks for The Washington Post via Getty Images) | The Washington Post via Getty Images

A bill that would provide order to California's muddled medical marijuana program cleared a major hurdle Friday, when the state Assembly's Appropriations Committee moved it forward for a full Assembly vote next week.

Authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the measure, AB 1894, would create uniform rules to govern the state's multibillion-dollar medical marijuana industry. Although California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medicinal use in 1996, the state has yet to establish a set of standards guiding the cultivation, production and sale of the plant, which has led to what Ammiano described to The Huffington Post as "chaos."

"I am optimistic that we can continue to work with all parties to finally create regulation that will satisfy all needs," Ammiano said in a statement Friday, "from federal law enforcement down to the very sick patients who depend on the health benefits only marijuana can provide."

California currently leaves it up to local governments to decide how they want to implement the state's medical marijuana law. As a result, some cities, like San Francisco and Oakland, have established clear-cut systems that dictate where dispensaries can operate and impose fees that directly enrich their coffers. Other places, like San Diego and San Jose, remain largely unregulated, with very little control over where pot-related businesses can operate. San Jose lawmakers are currently mulling legislation that would effectively make it impossible for medical marijuana providers to exist.

"Marijuana has never been regulated by the state as any other business," Ammiano told HuffPost last year after introducing similar legislation. "Cities and counties don't know what to do or what they can do. Police are unsure how to respond."

AB 1894 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 proposal would allow the agency to impose fees on marijuana businesses in order to raise revenue for the state, and local municipalities would also be allowed to impose additional taxes.

"Without regulation, there's no way to capture any of the income that could go toward our infrastructure or other worthy causes," Ammiano told HuffPost last month.

California's lack of statewide regulations over its pot program has left it vulnerable to federal interference, as the drug is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance (along with heroin and LSD) in the eyes of the national government. In 2011, a coalition of U.S. attorneys launched an aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana operations throughout the state under the guise that the industry had spiraled out of control. Since then, hundreds of businesses related to the drug have closed, and thousands of people have lost their jobs. 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, the Obama administration has been less combative in states with more comprehensive regulations. Colorado, for example, has faced fewer DEA raids and has been allowed to implement its groundbreaking recreational, adult-use law largely 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," Tom Angell, the head of weed advocacy group Marijuana Majority, told HuffPost last mont. "It's very confusing in California right now: a patchwork of regulations city to city and county to county."

Ammiano has made many attempts to create statewide medical marijuana regulations over the past few years, but each piece of legislation stalled or was defeated by opponents who argued the measures didn't address key issues like the environmental implications of growing cannabis or the criteria for doctors to make recommendations to patients. He's confident his current bill addresses every concern and more.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," he told HuffPost last month. "People have seen that the more regulation you have, the less chaos you have."

Meanwhile, marijuana reform advocates believe a measure like Ammiano's is the key to paving the way for a law that would allow recreational use by adults in the state. Recent polls have suggested a majority of Californians support legalizing pot for recreational purposes, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has joined an effort to place a legalization initiative on the 2016 ballot.

But first, "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."

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