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Cannabis Quagmire 

Nearly two decades after California voters passed a landmark medical marijuana law, there remains no statewide regulatory framework to govern what has now become a $1.8 billion industry. In each of the last three years, the state Legislature has attempted to bring some semblance of order to the chaos that stems from having a patchwork quilt of regulations throughout the state, with 54 counties and hundreds of cities all regulating the cultivation, purchase and sales of medical marijuana differently. Each attempt has failed. The most recent, Senate Bill 1262, authored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) was unceremoniously killed Aug. 15, when the Assembly Appropriations Committee simply failed to act on it before the close of the legislative session, relegating it to the dust bin of history.

Correa's bill, authored with plenty of input from law enforcement agencies and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who has made marijuana policy reform a priority of his tenure in Sacramento, was flawed from all perspectives. It would have created the Bureau of Medical Marijuana, which would have licensed the cultivation, transportation and distribution of marijuana. It would have cost an estimated $20 million to form the bureau, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. Some — if not all — of that money would have been recouped by a system that would see the state charge dispensaries and growers serving more than five people $8,000 for a license. The bill also had a provision allowing for some local control, mostly by allowing cities and counties with bans on dispensaries to leave them in place — another provision dispensary owners, growers and patient advocates decried. Other prickly provision of the bill would have barred anyone with a drug trafficking conviction from purchasing a state license and required that marijuana be transported in specially modified vehicles.

Proponents of the bill said the licensing fees and strict regulations were designed to fund proper oversight, weed out bad actors and increase community safety. Opponents lambasted the bill, saying it would expose dispensaries to federal prosecution and hamper patient access. Despite the controversy, the bill passed the Senate with a unanimous vote in May, and then sailed through a pair of Assembly committees with a combined 16-3 vote before landing in appropriations.

Ryan Emenaker, a professor of political science at College of the Redwoods, says most bills die in committee. Lawmakers, he says, introduce bills for all kinds of reasons — to address real problems, to please constituents and to appease lobbyists and industry groups. But, Emenaker says, there are only so many bills a legislator can really prioritize — the others are introduced so the lawmaker can say he or she did his or her part, and then relegated to committee, where they die quietly. "The difficulty with the committee process is that it's the part of the legislative process that's done in secret," he says. Committee votes are recorded, but if a bill isn't acted upon, no one really knows why.

In the case of S.B. 1262, committee chair Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) told the Los Angeles Times the bill was too expensive. "Not every idea can be funded by the taxpayer," he told the paper. But that rings a bit hollow in a state that spent more than $96 billion from its general fund last year. Even if we ignore for a moment that Los Angeles alone reportedly has some 300 dispensaries that theoretically would each be lining up to pay the $8,000 licensing fee and presume the $20 million in spending to start up the Bureau of Medical Marijuana was a total loss, is that too hefty a price to bring some semblance of order to a chaos Proposition 215 has left behind?

It seems far more likely the bill was shelved not because of its price tag but because of its content. And, as Emenaker notes, we'll likely never know the real reason. Was it the influence of those in a hugely profitable industry who stand to gain by maintaining the status quo that swayed the vote? Did the committee realize the bill was potentially flawed and could limit patient access to medicine voters decided should be available back in 1996? Or, like the state's medical marijuana law itself, did the bill just get unwieldy and complex, filled with a potential mine field of unintended consequences?

Merriam Webster defines "quagmire" as follows: A situation that is hard to deal with or get out of: a situation that is full of problems. Sounds appropriate.

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Thadeus Greenson

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