What just happened across California? Why did so many cities and counties just ban medical cannabis cultivation, collectives and/or delivery services? The Prop 215 medical cannabis distribution system was humming along, veering towards likely legalization later this year, but then a municipal freak-out occurred in the last few months across much of California. This commotion can be blamed upon overreaction to a drafting error in last year’s Assembly Bill 243, which stated that if local governments did not have a law by March 1, 2016 to regulate commercial cultivation then the state Department of Food and Agriculture would issue licenses instead of the local government. This was found in a single line of a single part of AB-243, which along with AB-266 and Senate Bill 643, made up the new Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) passed last year after a historic set of stakeholder negotiations occurred last summer. While the March deadline has since been repealed, some of the damage has already been done.
These bills only became the law on January 1 of this year, but the rush for cities and counties to enact medical cannabis bans began in November of last year. The MMRSA program itself is extraordinarily complicated and was the result of a considerable amount of studying the current medical cannabis distribution system and developing a system of regulation that would in time bring greater reliability and consumer confidence to our medical cannabis industry here in California. While the new state program comes into effect, the existing (but vague) system of collectives and cooperatives were absolutely meant to stay in existence, continuing to provide medicine to patients. This was expected to be a deliberative, gradual transition, as state agencies began to design standards for laboratory testing, pesticide controls, tracking of transported product and infused product manufacturing standards. While a new state framework was being stood up, cities and counties were meant to slowly begin issuing local operating permits for medical cannabis businesses over a two-year period, and then the state would issue licenses to those businesses that had obtained local operating permits.
Makes a little sense, right? But just one month into the new law, we already have anything but a calm and orderly transition. Across California, local cities and counties have rushed to ban medical cannabis cultivation, delivery and distribution, often denying any provision for patients to cultivate for themselves. As Californians have long ago accepted the tremendous medical benefits of cannabis, and are beginning to understand the more general policy failures of the “War on Drugs,” who is pushing these bans? In Sacramento, one of the most truculent lobbyists for prohibitionist policies is the League of Cities, who are often aligned with the Police Chiefs Association. Since the passage of the MMRSA, the League has been conducting “informational” roadshows (closed to the public) instructing local elected officials, attorneys, and staff that the only responsible policy is to ban all medical cannabis commercial activity. While preaching a respect for “local control” above all else, the only model ordinances that are offered up are absolute bans, regardless of local voter sentiment, quashing the needs of patients, and denying the existing collective distribution framework.
Amplifying these regressive policy “recommendations” are a statewide network of contract city attorneys staffed from a few private firms who are paid handsomely by local taxpayers but apparently take their legal and moral queues from elsewhere. In numerous cities and counties, I have personally witnessed City Attorneys and County Counsel disregard the explicit direction of elected officials and appointed planning commissioners, pushing for policies out of line with local sentiment and claiming a sense of urgency which just does not exist. As specious claims of “loss of local control” have been used to shove bans down the throats of frightened local elected officials, medical cannabis patients are immediately harmed, but the bans will hurt all residents. With an increase in enforcement costs and a reduction of sales taxes in these new ban areas, city and county services will be lessened, public employee salaries will be reduced and cannabis will exclusively be sold by illicit actors, bringing danger and criminality to their cities and counties. I truly don’t think that this is what our representatives at the Capitol had in mind, when they were seeking to regulate our robust medical cannabis industry. So local cities and counties are doing it wrong—when are they going to begin doing it right, and who is going to make them?