Reform Bills Stall in Sacramento

June 9, 2011 - In a difficult session for marijuana advocates, the California legislature failed to approve key bills to protect medical marijuana employees' rights and to decrease cultivation penalties, while advancing legislation to tighten regulation of dispensaries.

The Assembly soundly defeated Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill to reduce cultivation from a felony to a wobbler, or optional misdemeanor, by a vote of 24-36. The bill, AB 1017, had been strongly supported by Cal NORML, arguing that it would save the state millions in enforcement costs. Several liberal Democrats opposed the bill, among them Sandre Swanson of Oakland, Jerry Hill of San Mateo, and Mike Feuer of Los Angeles. A single Republican, Chris Norby of Fullerton, spoke in favor. AB 1017 had been endorsed by Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster and other north state DA's, but was opposed by mainline law enforcement. Ammiano intends to bring the bill back for a vote of reconsideration in January.

"The state legislature has once again demonstrated its incompetence when it comes to dealing with prison crowding," commented California NORML Director Dale Gieringer. "With California under court order to reduce its prison population, it is indefensbile to maintain felony penalties for non-violent drug offenses."

Meanwhile, State Senator Mark Leno's bill to protect medical marijuana patients from unwarranted employment discrimination in the form of drug testing, SB 129, failed to advance. Sensing that it lacked enough votes, Sen. Leno withheld the bill from a floor vote and asked for it to be held over to January so as to afford more time to round up support.

The bill attracted strong opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, who had opposed a similar measure in Prop. 19. Organized labor, which had supported an identical Leno bill that was vetoed bill in 2008, sat on its hands this year, except for the UFCW. Support for medical marijuana has slipped among moderate legislators in the last couple of years, amidst growing concern about out-of-control growers, dispensaries and collectives.

Another bill that failed to make the cut was a bill by Sen. Calderon, SB 626, which would establish a statewide commission to make recommendations regarding regulation of medical marijuana distribution. California NORML had testified in favor of SB 626 after opposing an earlier version, which would have established an intrusive, complicated regulation scheme for medical marijuana distribution. SB 626 was held up by the Appropriations Committee on account of the fact that it would cost the state money. Sen. Calderon is considering whether to revive the bill later this session.

Meanwhile, two bills to strengthen restrictions on medical marijuana collectives won easy approval. The Assembly voted 53-1 to approve AB 1300, by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (Van Nuys), which authorizes local governments to regulate the "location, operation or establishment" of collectives. The sole dissenting vote came from Tom Ammiano, who objected to the dropping of language that would have made it clear that collectives can engage in dispensing as well as cultivation of marijuana. AB 1300 would effectively put an end to numerous lawsuits in which collectives have challenged the right of local governments to ban or restrict them. The bill now heads to the State Senate.

The State Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill by Sen. Lou Correa (Anaheim), SB847, which would ban collectives from locating within 600 feet of residential zones. Like last year's Buchanan bill, which imposed a similar buffer zone around schools, the bill allows communities to opt out of the restriction by local ordinance. (SB847 was gutted and amended from an earlier version, which would have established an ambitious state regulation system for medical marijuana distribution.) The vote was 31-2, with only San Francisco senators Mark Leno and Leland Yee opposing. SB 847 now moves to the State Assembly.

One pro-cannabis bill which did win approval was an industrial hemp bill by Sen. Mark Leno, SB 676. Sen. Leno described hemp as a "golden opportunity" for California farmers. However, the bill is not necessarily in the interest of marijuana users or growers, since hemp pollen can carry 100 miles, fertilizing and spoiling sinsemilla plants. SB 676 limits industrial hemp production to Imperial, Yolo, Kings, Kern and San Joaquin counties, which are mostly downwind from prime marijuana growing areas. SB 676 passed the Senate by 22-16 and now moves to the Assembly.

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Also see: Not a Good Year for Marijuana So Far in Sacramento