Sen. Mike McGuire introduces sweeping marijuana bill

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A North Coast state senator has introduced sweeping legislation aimed at establishing a comprehensive way for California to regulate nearly all aspects of medical marijuana, from licensing dispensaries to creating quality assurance testing for cannabis products.

State Sen. Mike McGuire’s Medical Marijuana Public Safety and Environmental Protection Act, Senate Bill 643, would essentially give the state’s medical marijuana laws specificity and teeth that have not been in place in the 18 years since California became the first in the nation to allow residents to use pot for medical purposes.

McGuire called California’s current medical cannabis regulations “impotent” and said that “the state has turned its head on this industry.”

“There are so many regulations governing agriculture in this state but one of our top crops has been left out and that’s marijuana,” said McGuire, whose district encompasses a western swath of Northern California from Marin County to the Oregon border.

The bill has earned support from a range of medical marijuana advocates, setting itself apart from a cluttered field of more than a dozen bills involving marijuana under consideration by Sacramento lawmakers. On Monday, AB 643 received unanimous approval from the Senate Business and Professions Committee. The bill heads to the Senate and Governance and Finance Committee next Wednesday.

“California has a multibillion-dollar medical cannabis industry and it needs to be regulated,” said Hezekiah Allen, chairman and executive director of the statewide trade group Emerald Growers Association.

Allen called McGuire’s bill “a step in the right direction” and said it would help bring some coherence to cannabis cultivation regulations.

The flurry of marijuana-related bills under consideration this year include ideas such as putting the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control department in charge of medical cannabis activity, prohibiting medical marijuana users from receiving donated organs and increasing criminal sentences for illegally manufacturing concentrated cannabis, or hash oil, in the presence of children.

McGuire’s plan proposes the state establish a Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation within the existing Department of Consumer Affairs. The bureau would license and regulate dispensaries, cultivation sites, transportation systems and manufacturers of all marijuana products.

The state would have jurisdiction over how doctors advertise medical marijuana recommendation services and quality assurance testing for edibles and other products.

Fees and penalties collected through the license program would go into a Medical Marijuana Regulation Fund that would support the program and its enforcement.

The bill altogether bans marijuana cultivation in residential areas and would require that all marijuana meet certified organic standards by Jan. 1, 2022.

The bill has no sponsors, and McGuire said that was intentional to allow him to craft a bill that would appeal to a wide range of sectors concerned with marijuana, from law enforcement to advocates.

“It’s the best bill that’s been proposed so far and we’re hopeful we’ll be working with his office,” said Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Gieringer said that NORML will suggest specific amendments. Among its reservations, Gieringer said the group wants to make sure the fee structure is not burdensome for small-scale marijuana farmers. It will also object to a provision that would disqualify people with prior marijuana-related convictions from obtaining business licenses.

“The current laws are ridiculously vague,” Gieringer said. “There are literally hundreds of lawsuits about the legality of dispensaries and whatnot throughout the state, rules vary drastically from county to city.”

The bill comes amid major public education campaigns about the environmental hazards and water concerns of unregulated pot cultivation, especially illegal marijuana farms on public lands.

It will pass or fail before California voters are expected to reconsider legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2016. McGuire said his bill does not take a stance on recreational use and is not proposed in anticipation of legalization.

“We believe that California voters will be able to make their decision soon enough,” McGuire said. “This only focused on medical cannabis because regulation — it’s 20 years too late.”

The bill complements proposed legislation from another North Coast lawmaker, Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, that is focused on regulating marijuana cultivation’s impact on water resources. Assembly Bill 243, the Marijuana Watershed Protection Act, brings pot under the same regulatory control of water agencies.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said he’s talked with both Wood and McGuire about the obstacles his deputies face when addressing illegal trespass marijuana gardens and the factors that generate marijuana-related crime like home-invasion robberies. Wood’s bill includes some features that resemble Mendocino County’s now defunct marijuana permitting program, including limits on how close outdoor marijuana plants can be to dwellings that essentially ban it from existing in dense residential areas.

Allman said he supports legislation that makes marijuana laws less ambiguous.

“I am in favor of telling people what the rules are so they can follow them,” Allman said.

McGuire’s bill could potentially ease the threat of federal prosecution for those who engage in California’s medical cannabis industry.

In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department issued a sweeping policy statement instructing federal prosecutors to ease up enforcement in states that develop rigorous regulatory schemes to oversee medical and recreational marijuana.

Despite that policy change, California’s murky set of regulations still made medical cannabis businesses vulnerable to federal prosecution, according to Allen with the growers association.

“Right now we’ve got unregulated agriculture, partially regulated manufacturing, partially unregulated retail,” Allen said. “Trying to solve all those challenges with one bill has been very challenging in the past.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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