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Waiting for the Man: Jerry Brown Is the Decider on California's Medical Marijuana Industry 

Tuesday, Jul 29 2014
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Jerry Brown is dominating. In the third act of his life, what the right-wingers dismissed just a few years ago as feeble effort for a curtain call is turning out to be more like a victory lap. He's cruising, barely contested, toward a second term in his second coming as California governor. He has taken advantage of an economic upswing to do what was once deemed impossible: get the state's finances in order while allowing business to grow without cutting services, an achievement feted by The New York Times as the "California comeback."

Barring disaster, Brown will serve in office until his 80s. And he appears hell-bent on making his last years memorable. "I'm going to build great things, I'm going to do big things," he told the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board earlier this year.

And here's how: build a high-speed bullet train that connects San Francisco to Los Angeles in a few hours; bore giant $25 billion tunnels through the soil linking the Delta with parched farms farther south; and, finally, lay the groundwork for a multibillion dollar legal cannabis market.

That last one, while never on Brown's lips, is well within his power as the haggling over regulating the state's medical marijuana industry enters the 11th hour. But nobody is quite sure what Brown intends to do.

2014 has already been a 0x000Aremarkable year of "firsts" for the California pot industry. For the first time, the state's law enforcement lobby has agreed that marijuana is a business worth regulating as opposed to a scourge deserving extermination.

And meeting police chiefs and the powerful League of California Cities at the negotiating table is a more-or-less united cannabis industry. That cohesive front is also a worthy achievement, when you consider the bizarre, feud-like infighting within the pro-cannabis community that occurred in the days leading up to the defeat of the state's marijuana legalization measure (Prop. 19) in 2010. (One memorable flier, circulated that fall by a youthful backwoods pot grower, swore that evil agro-industrial giant Monsanto was behind the effort to let adults smoke weed in peace.)

As of this writing, a plan to put the state's medical marijuana industry under the control of the California Department of Consumer Affairs — which would issue licenses for a fee and conduct inspections while letting cities and counties deal with issues like zoning (and allow them to decide if they even want pot shops) — is inching towards completion.

If the bill, SB 1262, co-authored by Southern California Sen. Lou Correa and San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, clears a few more hurdles in the Legislature, it could reach Brown's desk by the end of the summer.

Except, the last few hurdles are big ones. As written, the bill puts mom-and-pop growers out of business if they can't afford a pricey license. What's worse is that nobody is sure how much a state-level bureaucracy for cannabis would cost. That could come out next month. But then there's the fact that nobody knows whether or not Consumer Affairs has the interest or ability to do the job.

An earlier version of the pot regulation bill put the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in charge of cannabis. Some potheads hate that model because it lumps marijuana in with Jack Daniel's and Budweiser. But at least ABC said it was interested and could do it. Contrast that to DCA, which hasn't even responded to elected officials' phone calls to attend a meeting, one Capitol staffer told me.

Who's making the call on that one? Jerry Brown. No Sacramento bureaucracy does anything without Jerry's approval, sources working the bill say. So if DCA isn't showing up, it's because they don't have JB's say-so.

"ABC is allowed to show up to meetings, and no one else — that's one of the weird 'non-signal' signals Jerry sends," a Sacramento-level staffer said last week of working with Brown, whom he likened to an all-knowing and all-powerful but ultimately intangible wizard.

This means the whole future of California's pot industry is in Brown's hands.

"It's the weirdness of the wizard," the staffer said. "And he works in mysterious ways."

Brown is in Mexico this week for a series of high-profile meetings with labor and political leaders. In a one-line email, a Brown spokesman said the governor doesn't comment on pending legislation — even legislation of which he appears to be the ultimate master.

That leaves everyone waiting to hear from the governor. Once Brown does make his exit from public life, it could be a California with a Tesla factory, well-watered fields, and a bullet train connecting it all. It could also be one with a booming pot trade.

Only Brown can tell — and so far, he's choosing not to.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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