4/20 Bills Pass Committees

SACRAMENTO - Legislative committees considered a pair of marijuana bills last week, approving Mark Leno's bill SB 1449 to make petty pot offenses an infraction, and narrowly passing a much watered-down version of Assemblywoman Buchanan's bill AB 2650 to limit dispensary siting.

On April 20th (fittingly enough) the Senate Public Safety Commitee voted 5-2 to approve Mark Leno's bill SB 1449 to downgrade possession of less than one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Although it was supported by all the drug reform groups, what ensured the bill's passage was support from the California DA's association and the Judicial Council, which complained of the burden to the courts of processing misdemeanor cases for an offense whose maximal punishment is a $100 fine.

The bill was opposed by CNOA lobbyist John Lovell, who argued that it was "axiomatic" that users of "powerful, mind-altering drugs" should be forced into treatment wherever possible. In written testimony, Cal NORML argued that the bill would save the state millions of dollars in enforcement costs. As usual, the vote was along party lines, with Republicans supporting the costly, invasive, big-government program of pot criminalization by opposing SB 1449.

Assemblywoman Buchanan had tougher sledding in the Assembly Public Safety Committee with her bill to limit dispensary siting, which had been amended to only prohibit dispensaries close to schools. The original version of AB 2650 would have also forbidden siting within 1000 feet of parks, churches, and even school bus stops, but Buchanan abandoned this when it became clear she lacked votes to pass it. The critical vote turned out to be that of committee member Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who got Buchanan to agree to additional amendments before giving it his needed fourth vote to pass at a special hearing on Thursday.

As amended, the Buchanan bill would bar dispensaries from siting within 600 feet of an elementary or secondary school (600 feet being the same buffer zone as required for liquor stores); existing dispensaries could also be grandfathered, and non-dispensing providers were exempted, two crucial exemptions not in the original bill.

The bill passed with heated controversy, as Chairman Ammiano objected that the amendment's text had not been submitted to the committee within the prescribed time. In the end, the bill passed with aye votes from Democrats Hill and Anthony Portantino (Pasadena) plus Republicans Gilmore and Hagman. Ammiano and Beall voted no, and Skinner was absent. The bill faces an uncertain future in the Assembly, where it must still be approved by the Appropriations Committee.

In other legislation, Assemblyman Ammiano's bill AB 1811 to legalize medical marijuana paraphernalia passed out of committee earlier this month and is awaiting a vote on the floor. Meanwhile, Ammiano has been holding back on his legalization bill, AB 2254, pending this November's vote on the TaxCannabis2010 initiative.