Police Lobby Wants to Gut Medical Pot in California 

Proposed legislation would clamp down hard on medical cannabis, but weed activists are pushing for saner reforms.

In a recent interview for a Culture magazine cover story, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the one-time US Surgeon General candidate, told me he believes that FDA-approved medical marijuana products should be available in every pharmacy in America. Medical pot patients and the latest research on cannabis have convinced him of the drug's efficacy, he said, and he is advising increased medical marijuana access around the globe.

But in California, lobbyists for police chiefs and cities want to do the opposite and drastically curtail access to the sometimes life-saving drug. The police lobby and the League of California Cities are sponsoring proposed legislation this year that, critics say, would effectively gut the state's medical cannabis industry.

The proposals by the California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities, which are embedded in Senate Bill 1262, include a requirement that doctors can only recommend pot to a patient during an in-person visit, and not over the phone or Skype, like how other medicines are often prescribed. SB 1262 also would require physicians to fill out much more paperwork, and mandate that any doctor who writes more than one hundred recommendations for medical cannabis be audited by the state. Critics say the bill also would effectively ban physicians from becoming medical cannabis specialists.

Not surprisingly, groups that have a stake in California's medical cannabis industry are already mobilizing for a major fight in Sacramento this spring and summer against SB 1262. And activists are vowing to make significant alterations to the legislation. "You should expect to see some massive changes to that bill," said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. "[Those doctor's regulations] are not going to happen."

In some ways, however, the introduction of SB 1262 marks the beginning of what could become a historic period in California medical marijuana law. For the first time since Californians legalized medical weed in 1996, police chiefs have stopped opposing all cannabis regulations. The California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities have acknowledged that regulations are coming one way or another, writing in a February statement, "We realized that without our proactive intervention it could take a form that was severely damaging to our interests."

"The police chiefs are now at the table because they don't have a choice," state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) wrote in an email to me earlier this week.

So the League of Cities and the police chiefs got state Senator Lou Correa, who represents a city — Santa Ana — that has banned medical pot dispensaries, to sponsor and introduce SB 1262. The bill consists of two main parts: the first part is the new doctors' rules cited above.

The second part would put the state's Department of Public Health in charge of licensing the multibillion-dollar industry's farms and stores. It would also put county health departments in charge of enforcement.

Although SB 1262 represents something of a victory in that police chiefs have dropped their total opposition to dispensaries, the bill is a mess for a number of reasons.

For one, muzzling doctors with miles of new rules and red tape is probably unconstitutional, some critics say. And members of the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) note that pot specialists exist because police have intimidated almost all other doctors.

After Prop 215 passed, law enforcement officials targeted physicians who recommended pot. Doctors had to fight in court to clarify their First Amendment right to talk to patients about cannabis. But to this day, most physicians won't write a recommendation for fear of reprisal. "We've had just countless reports of this," said ASA spokesperson Kris Hermes. "[Doctors] don't want to risk losing their license to prescribe medications, which the Drug Enforcement Administration controls. Therefore, they are not willing to write a recommendation."

For the same reasons, primary care doctors are unlikely to refer patients to medical cannabis specialists — as SB 1262 requires. And without such referrals, medical pot specialists would be prohibited from recommending weed to their patients under the proposed law.

The California Medical Association's public affairs office told us Friday that it also has "a number of concerns about SB 1262," and has been "communicating with the office of the bill's author."

Correa's bill states that there are "widespread problems" with the recommendation system as is. Officials from the senator's office wrote in an email to me that they think "it is entirely too easy to obtain marijuana for what are supposed to be medical purposes. Virtually anyone can get a recommendation, and get their hands on marijuana." Correa's office also disagrees with the assertion that aspects of SB 1262 are unconstitutional.

But Ammiano's office contends that the California Department of Health is unqualified to license the medical pot industry. Likewise, many county health departments are unqualified to police legal weed. Several counties in rural areas of the state and in Southern California have refused to issue medical marijuana patient ID cards.

Ammiano plans to push competing regulations in Assembly Bill 604. "My bill is very much alive and I think anyone who actually reads [AB 604 and SB 1262] will recognize that my bill is a better fit," he stated in an email.

The last day for each bill to pass out of its legislative house of origin is May 30. Peter Hecht, a political reporter for the Sacramento Bee who wrote the book Weed Land, said last week that he thinks "the two bills will cancel each other out and nothing will get done this year."

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