California medical marijuana regulations failed in the state legislature last week, but advocacy groups helped advance a bill to better protect collectives, and helped defeat a bill that would have criminalized driving while sober.
All bills in the legislature had until Friday, May 31 to pass through their houses of origin, and the day brought a stinging defeat for San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's AB 473, which would have begun the process of regulating the state's estimated $1.3 billion medical cannabis industry. Assembly Bill 473 would have placed the entire medical cannabis supply chain under the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The bill failed 35-37, with a handful of Democratic lawmakers from Southern and Central California voting no and effectively stalling the bill.
That's very frustrating considering these are the same regions crying out for one statewide solution to regulating medical cannabis, said Don Duncan, a leading medical marijuana advocate and lobbyist based in Los Angeles.
Even as California's cops and councilmembers call out in the press for tighter regulations on medical marijuana, lobbyists for California's police chiefs, district attorneys, and narcotic officers — as well as the League of California Cities — opposed such regulations. Some Assemblymembers who voted for AB 473 in committee voted against it on the floor.
Duncan said Southern and Central California lawmakers don't want the success or failure of medical cannabis regulations hung around their necks. "We're having a problem with getting folks in Southern California to cast a ballot that could be seen as affirmative of medical cannabis or be seen as facilitating dispensaries," he said.
The League of California Cities also succeeded in confusing lawmakers, said several advocates for cannabis regulations. "We think part of it is a misunderstanding of how AB 473 would affect cities' ability to control clinics and dispensaries," said Carlos Alcala, Ammiano's communications director.
The league lobbied for and received an amendment to AB 473 clarifying that cities could still ban dispensaries. But a spokesperson for the league told the Sacramento Bee that the league now wants to limit Californians' rights to obtain a physician's recommendation for cannabis. "Sometimes agreement is a moving target," Alcala noted.
The cops were joined in opposition to AB 473 by far-left marijuana advocates who felt AB 473 didn't protect patients enough. Such groups want to force dispensaries on cities like Concord that have banned them. "The support for 473 amongst medical marijuana folks was somewhat lukewarm," said Duncan. "We could have swayed six of those votes with grassroots enthusiasm, but I didn't feel it on this bill. Our community is looking for some very different forms of regulations than what they're finding."
While it seems Californians generally agree that regulations are important, they disagree widely on the details, he said. "We're going to have to compromise," Duncan said.
Ammiano hopes to somehow resurrect AB 473 this session, Alcala said.
But there were some victories as well: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's SB 439 — which clarifies that collectives are legal — cleared the Senate; Senator Lou Correa's sober DUI bill SB 289 — which would have made it a crime to drive for days or weeks after smoking pot — died a quick death; and a largely symbolic hemp bill SB 566 also cleared the Senate.
Steinberg's SB 439 "clarifies that a cooperative, collective or other business entity that operates within the Attorney General's 'Guidelines for the Security and Non-Diversion of Marijuana Grown for Medical Use' will not be subject to prosecution for marijuana possession or commerce, as specified."
The bill seeks to address the problem of cops in medical marijuana-unfriendly counties who still arrest lawful medical pot growers and raid lawful collectives, and of police in places like Los Angeles County who still argue that all dispensary sales are illegal. SB 439 clarifies that sales as well as distribution systems like storefront dispensaries are lawful. The bill cleared the Senate on May 20, and is in the Assembly this summer.
Advocates are watching out for amendments, said Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the NORML. Opponents of the bill, like California's narcotics officers lobby, will try to water it down or poison it, he said. "There will be amendments, no doubt about that."
California cops also would like to send medical marijuana patients to prison for driving while sober, but they're going to have to try again a different time, after patients groups stopped Correa's SB 289, which never made it out of committee this session. Groups like NORML and Americans for Safe Access orchestrated at least 3,600 emails and phone calls to kill Correa's bill — which would have resulted in prison time for people with any trace of cannabis in their blood. "That bill was damned unpopular by the time it got heard," Gieringer said.
While pot's effects wane in a few hours, non-psychoactive byproducts of cannabis consumption can stay in the body for days or weeks. Police testing for such "metabolites" are already sending sober drivers to prison in Arizona, and Colorado just passed a similar bill. These unscientific "zero tolerance" or "per se DUI" bills are trendy nationwide, Gieringer said, and the victory for common sense in California may be short-lived. "SB 289 will come back," he said.
Lastly, Senator Mark Leno's hemp bill, SB 566, passed the Senate. The largely symbolic bill directs the state to plant industrial hemp when it's federally legal, even though hell may freeze over first. Governor Brown vetoed a similar bill last year, citing federal law.
Both houses take their summer recess on July 3. September 13 is the last day to pass bills this year.
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