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In Marijuana Regulation, Jerry Brown Says Nothing, Does Everything 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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California has allowed some form of access to medical marijuana for almost 20 years. In that time — as the "movement" to relax and reverse cannabis prohibition morphed into a multibillion-dollar "industry" — most of the state's elected officials have reacted by either decrying the state's cannabis trade or ignoring it completely.

There is one major exception. And if the state Legislature succeeds in crafting statewide rules on cannabis and passes them onto the governor for signature by tomorrow's deadline, the exception will have ruled again.

The first city in the state to get a handle on the businesses selling medical marijuana within its limits was Oakland (followed closely by San Francisco). When crafting that city's rules, in 2004, those involved quickly found themselves deadlocked. Should there be eight dispensaries allowed in the city, or six? Should they pay this tax, or that? Nobody could agree, until the mayor entered the room.

Action was swift, according to those present. There would be four dispensaries, said the mayor, who then rattled off what would become of the city's landmark dispensary ordinance, before abruptly exiting.

"He said, 'Here's what you need to do,' — and then he left the room,'" says Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, the group pushing to legalize recreational marijuana at next year's ballot.

That mayor was Jerry Brown, who has continued to be a rare decisive force on cannabis during his climb back to the Governor's Mansion.

As attorney general in 2008, Brown issued a set of "guidelines" for how cannabis businesses ought to operate. Now known as "the attorney general's guidelines," they have served as the de facto Bible for the industry since (and have been quietly deferred to, without updating or much comment, by the current attorney general whenever the cannabis question arises).

And with Brown as governor again, state lawmakers, industry players, and the affected public — concerned straight-laced citizens as well as marijuana users — are banking on him to get something done.

While there are two bills in the state Legislature that would regulate the industry — one in the Assembly and another in the Senate — the ultimate shot-caller is the governor.

Eccentric, inscrutable, and ultimately all-powerful, Brown will decide the future of marijuana in California — and since becoming governor, he has uttered barely a word on the subject.

Brown's office could not be reached for comment (the line at his Sacramento office was busy and an email to a spokesperson bounced back).

But it is obvious that he is driving the process from behind the scenes.

On paper, the authors of marijuana reform are North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire and Alameda Assemblyman Rob Bonta, lead authors of the two regulatory bills: Senate Bill 643 and Assembly Bill 266, respectively.

After a full year of negotiation and back-and-forth between the state's marijuana industry and the powerful Police Chiefs Association and League of California Cities, both SB 643 and AB 266 were entirely gutted a few weeks ago.

By press time Tuesday, they were identical, containing — word-for-word — rules on regulating doctors that had been circulated, via back channels, by staffers from the governor's office in the last week of August, according to sources close to the process.

What does Brown want? His preference is to create a "Bureau of Medical Marijuana Governance" under the Department of Consumer Affairs. Run by a bureau chief — or marijuana czar — appointed by the governor, the bureau would be responsible for licensing "commercial cannabis activity" by Jan. 1, 2017.

Small growers who don't sell their crops would not need a license. There would be separate licenses for growing, selling, manufacturing, transporting, and distributing — and, in a page from the alcohol industry's book, distributors would not be allowed to acquire other licenses.

Dispensary operators could not run more than three locations, and there would be a cap on how many licenses were issued to concentrate makers using "volatile solvents" — hence, a limit on makers of powerful "butane hash oil."

All cannabis product would be "tracked and traced": the licensing authority would be emailed a "manifest" on what product was going where. All marijuana would have to be transported, including for retail deliveries, in a special storage compartment "affixed to the vehicle." That is to say, no duffel bags or briefcases.

Dispensary employees would also be required to go through a mandatory training process overseen by the state.

Sounds simple enough. So what's holding it back? According to multiple sources in Sacramento, the two lawmakers are squabbling over which bill gets to include more of Brown's language they get to include in their respective bills — essentially fighting over who gets to have the credit for someone else's work.

Efforts to reach Bonta were not successful. Reached for comment briefly at press deadline, McGuire said that only "technical amendments" were holding up the process.

By the time you read this, this could all be irrelevant. The bills could have been amended and passed — or the negotiation could be ongoing until the final deadline.

But whatever happens (or has happened), it is because of Jerry Brown. And he hasn't even been "officially" involved.


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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