Pubdate: Thu, 17 Sep 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Steven Greenhut


Sacramento - It's commonplace for legislators and commentators to 
criticize the "excesses" of direct democracy and propose reforms that 
limit the ability of voters to enact laws - or at least insert 
lawmakers more deeply into the initiative process. Yet a recently 
passed bill, approved in the final moments of the recently concluded 
legislative session, showcases why voters continue to take important 
matters into their own hands.

The issue is medical marijuana. After struggling to put together 
regulations dealing with this quasi-legal industry, a bipartisan 
group of legislators - with last-minute negotiating from the 
governor's office - passed a package of bills. The most significant 
is AB 266, which "establishes a comprehensive licensing and 
regulatory framework for the cultivation, manufacture, 
transportation, storage, distribution, and sale of medical marijuana ... ."

It creates a new mini-marijuana bureaucracy called the Bureau of 
Medical Marijuana Regulation. After they were done fighting over who 
got credit for the bill, legislators were quoted praising the 
"historic" nature of the bills. Mainly, they require distributors to 
have state licenses, track all medical marijuana distributed 
throughout the state, and allow local governments to tax and even ban 

The package is comprehensive - and has the support of many powerful 
Capitol players, from local government to law enforcement. It even 
has the imprimatur of some of the key players in the state's large 
and growing medical-marijuana industry. Like all major bills, it has 
its share of useful and controversial elements.

But a little history will help put the legislative back-patting in 
perspective. Nineteen years ago, California voters - over the 
objections of most of the political establishment - approved 
Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. 
Basically, the voters allowed patients and caregivers to possess and 
grow certain amounts of marijuana for medical use and protected 
physicians from punishment if they prescribe it to patients.

California voters approved of the measure by more than 10 percentage 
points, thus circumventing a governor (Pete Wilson) who vetoed 
medical-marijuana bills and a president (Bill Clinton) who also was 
something of a drug warrior. Backers said it was a classic use of the 
initiative power as intended by its Progressive-era founders: to let 
the people circumvent the politicians.

Of course, the resulting medical-marijuana industry has operated in 
what Reason's Jacob Sullum calls a "legal gray area" because 
Proposition 215 "never managed to specify where and how patients can 
obtain their medicine if they are not up to growing it themselves and 
cannot find a 'primary caregiver' who is willing and able to do it for them."

These problems can be attributed in part to imprecise drafting in the 
initiative - but also to conflicting state and federal laws, and to a 
political establishment more intent on derailing the public's vote 
than upholding it. This uncertain situation - epitomized by marijuana 
clinics that are required to pay taxes, but are not allowed to have 
bank accounts - has continued to this day. To the Legislature's 
credit, it has finally offered certainty - in exchange for taxes, new 
regulations and the power to limit the number of clinics. But it did 
take 19 years to get this far.

Furthermore, it's clear what's driving the effort: the prospect of 
yet another voter initiative. Other states recently have legalized 
marijuana for recreational purposes, and an initiative to do the same 
in California may be on the 2016 ballot.

For instance, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, chairman of a Blue Ribbon 
Commission on Marijuana Policy, views a well-developed 
medical-marijuana regulatory system as the foundation for a coming 
recreational system.

"They did get some things right, but they are creating so many 
significant barriers to the industry it's not going to... minimize 
the harm of the illicit market," said Diane Goldstein, a former 
Redondo Beach police lieutenant and spokesperson for Law Enforcement 
Against Prohibition. She can't understand why legislators continue to 
treat marijuana "like it's plutonium."

Whatever one's views of marijuana, this much is clear: The public is 
nearly two decades ahead of the state's politicians. Keep that in 
mind next time one of those politicians bellyaches about California's 
initiative process.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom