Cannabis Bills Hit the Capitol 

From divorce court to driving dirty, five new bills seek to either increase or decrease the government's role in your once-private life.

The oft-maligned "gridlock" in the California statehouse may cut both ways for medical marijuana patients this year. February 24 was the last day for California representatives in the state senate and assembly to introduce new legislation for the upcoming session. Five pending bills deal with medical marijuana or adults using the plant non-medically. Some can be seen as positive steps to protect patient rights and the civil liberties of all Californians, while others will either create a creepy state database of medical cannabis patients or virtually assure that more of said patients will lose custody of their kids in court. All the bills face long odds of ever becoming law, and, for some of them, maybe that's a good thing.

The big one is San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's AB 2312, which would regulate the state's medical marijuana industry instead of letting each California city and county take differing approaches to interpreting state law. "Greater certainty and uniformity are urgently needed regarding the rights and obligations of medical marijuana facilities, and for the imposition and enforcement of regulations to prevent unlawful growing and diversion of marijuana to non-medical use," Ammiano's office said in a statement.

California voters in 1996 approved medical defenses against prosecution for some marijuana crimes. In 2003, the legislature enacted the Medical Marijuana Program Act, which extended medical cannabis defenses to qualified patients who associate in order to grow and distribute the plant. Since then, about sixty California cities and counties have created medical marijuana access ordinances. However, many other cities and counties — many of whom did not support Prop 215 — have banned medical pot growers and distributors.

Assembly Bill 2312 creates a Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement within the California Department of Consumer Affairs. The board would approve or deny permits for growing, processing, testing, transporting, distributing, and selling medical cannabis. The board could also suspend, fine, restrict, or revoke registrations upon a violation of the act, and develop zoning standards for unincorporated and otherwise non-zoned areas.

The bill is very similar to a ballot initiative called the Medical Marijuana Regulation Control and Taxation Initiative, except that it does not impose a state tax, and instead authorizes local taxes. Imposing a state tax requires a two-thirds majority in both houses, which would be nearly impossible to obtain.

Assembly Bill 2465, authored by Democrat Nora Campos of San Jose, would require all medical marijuana patients to get a state identification card and register the address where they are cultivating marijuana — provisions that activists fear could make it easier for federal agents and prosecutors to target people. Currently, a doctor's recommendation for cannabis use provides patients with a defense against prosecution for pot crimes. In addition, state ID cards are currently voluntary. But activists say that mandating state registration is a blatant unconstitutional amendment to Prop 215 that poses dangers for cannabis patients and their providers. The DEA has already subpoenaed and obtained patient records from Michigan, a mandatory-registration state. Colorado also has similar mandatory registration and faces federal action.

Assembly Bill 2365 from Republican Brian Nestande of Palm Desert would almost certainly increase the number of kids who don't know one or both of their parents. The bill would amend the state family code to require that family courts consider a parent's documented use of prescribed drugs, including medical marijuana, in child custody proceedings. At present, the family code doesn't explicitly address these issues. However, reports have come in across the state that lawful medical cannabis patients have lost custody of their children in divorce proceedings over the issue.

San Francisco state Senator Mark Leno has introduced a bill, SB 1506, that would make the crime of possessing concentrated cannabis — also known as hashish — a misdemeanor. Currently, hash possession can either be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony, and a felony hash-possession conviction can result in a sentence of sixteen months or two or three years behind bars. If it was a misdemeanor only, it could result in no more than one year in county jail.

Existing law also requires a person who is convicted of possessing hash to register with local law enforcement agencies. Senate Bill 1506 would exclude certain misdemeanor offenses from the registration requirement, including a misdemeanor conviction for unlawful possession of concentrated cannabis.

Possessing one ounce or less of cannabis in California is an infraction punishable by a $100 ticket, but the state automatically revokes drivers' licenses as well. Assembly Bill 2600 from Chris Norby of Fullerton (Orange County) — one of the few "small government" Republicans in the legislature who isn't a total hypocrite — would prohibit the DMV from revoking a person's driving privileges for simple possession of one ounce or less of marijuana when a motor vehicle is involved.

All the bills are now headed to committee, where a key thing to watch will be the support or opposition of the California District Attorneys Association, the California Narcotic Officers' Association, and the California Police Chiefs Association. The district attorney's association, which has opposed previous attempts to lessen penalties for marijuana crimes, is particularly influential. "It's very difficult to succeed in authoring a bill of any sort [that is] criminal justice-related with the opposition of the California District Attorneys Association," Leno said. "Many legislators are very sensitive to positions they take."

As for the narcotic officers' association, it has issued a white paper stating "marijuana is not medicine," while the police chiefs encourage the prohibition of all California dispensaries.

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