July 29 2015 11:59 AM

Proposed state legislation would create licensing program

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Illustration by Carolyn Ramos

In late May, Zachary Lazarus closed the medical-cannabis dispensary where he works and drove home to find his family shaken up and his personal grow room raided.

About an hour before he arrived, he said, sheriff's deputies and Drug Enforcement Administration agents had searched his entire house, while a social worker with Child Welfare Services interviewed his two teenage sons.

"They came in, lectured my kids, lectured my wife, saying You know what your husband is doing is wrong,'" said Lazarus, who is a top manager at A Green Alternative, the city's first permitted medical cannabis dispensary.

Law enforcement confiscated cannabis plants from the family's home, according to a search warrant and supplemental documents. No arrests were made and no criminal charges were filed, according to the District Attorney's office.

Instead, the family signed a paper saying they would put a lock on the door to the grow room and keep the children away from any cannabis kept in the home. Child Welfare Services closed the case several weeks later.

The Sheriff's Department didn't return CityBeat's request for comment.

Advocates in San Diego have long complained that local law enforcement has provided no clear guidelines for cultivation, raiding growers seemingly at random. While the county and city of San Diego have come around to permitting cannabis dispensaries, selling to those establishments remains largely a shadow industry.

However, the seeds of change may be about to take root. After years of legislative wrangling, lawmakers at the state capital now look poised to overhaul that industry. Leading the way is Assembly Bill 266, a bill crafted as a compromise between advocates for medical cannabis and a coalition of the League of California Cities and law enforcement.

While the legislation would force municipalities to play by a clear and somewhat uniform set of rules, it would also give cities and counties the choice to completely prohibit medical-cannabis operations.

That's made some nervous, but after years of enduring criminal prosecutions, the cannabis industry seems ready to compromise.

"The only way that we're going to have clarity, that we're going to be able to operate outside of this gray area is to have these types of regulations," said Eugene Davidovich, president of the Alliance for Responsible Medical Access, a prominent local trade association, "and sometimes, we will have to take concessions, like giving the cities and counties the ability to ban."

When asked about the current guidelines for cultivation, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has routinely pointed to a state guideline that allowed for six mature plants per patient. However, in 2011, the California State Supreme Court ruled a patient could grow an amount "reasonably related" to his or her medical need.

"Dumanis herself has long been on the record in support of the legal and legitimate use of medical marijuana," said Steve Walker, communications director for the District Attorney. "However, the District Attorney's Office has filed criminal cases against illegal drug dealers who are hiding behind the compassionate spirit of the law."

The new legislation aims to provide clarity to places, such as San Diego, by creating the Governor's Office of Medical Cannabis Regulation to oversee licensing of dispensaries, cultivation, distribution and manufacturing of cannabis products, such as edibles and concentrates. The new department would coordinate with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Department of Public Health and the Board of Equalization.

Under the bill, cities and counties would be responsible for creating a parallel licensing system. While the bill would give industry players several years to come into compliance, it would also give local lawmakers the ability to significantly limit or ban industry operations with strict licensing regulations.

However, having a statewide template for licensing would likely incentivize action on the local level, said Davidovich. "I think a lot of municipalities statewide that have de facto bans currently are waiting to see what the state does; and once the state adopts some sort of rules, I think we're going to see many of these bans lifted and regulations follow.

"The biggest concern is what's going to be in the details," he added.

On a parallel track is Senate Bill 643, which would also create a licensing system. Lawmakers are now discussing how to merge the two bills before the Sept. 11 deadline for lawmakers to pass legislation.

Many significant questions remain, including whether all cannabis should be organic, whether felony drug charges should bar folks from working in the industry and where cannabis could be grown commercially.

Advocates are optimistic but wary of what might emerge from current negotiations, said Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"I think the prospects are good, but particulars are still very much up in the air because when you have two different bills, at the end of the legislature people meet behind closed doors and do all sorts of magic tricks," he said.

However, there's currently significant momentum to get the legislation passed, he added. "At the moment, things have been going well. There's been support all the way from law enforcement through the industry and users' groups."

In part, the effort has been fueled by the U.S. Department of Justice, which told lawmakers in 2013 to develop uniform guidelines or continue to face federal prosecutions.

However, adding significant pressure, legalization for recreational use is now looming over the heads of state officials. After watching experiments in Washington and Colorado, lawmakers seem motivated to establish robust regulations before full legalization likely heads to the California ballot in 2016.

"I think there's panic," Gieringer said. "The feeling in the legislature is that they've been remiss about not doing something to regulate medical marijuana before general legalization comes in."

How and if the state regulates medical cannabis will likely affect the potential implementation of recreational use, said Amanda Reiman, policy advocate for the Drug Policy Alliance, which plans to sponsor a state initiative to legalize recreational use.

"If they don't pass something, we're going to have to write an initiative that takes into account how to regulate medical, as well as recreational," she said.

"When we look at the iceberg of medical cannabis regulation, we only see dispensaries sticking up from above the water, but there's this huge mass of entities underneath the water that's gone unregulated," she added. 


Write to joshua@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.

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