Photo by Laura Anthony
Since the passage of the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, the medical marijuana industry in California has largely been unregulated by the state, leaving many questions about public safety and environmental concerns unanswered. With a public vote on the legalization of recreational use of marijuana looming in 2016, state lawmakers and cannabis growers have begun working together to create statewide legislation by the end of the year.
In the absence of state regulation, many local governments have set guidelines for marijuana cultivation, or, in some cases, growers have made their own. But these solutions are far from uniform across the state, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association. The group has produced multiple guides on sustainability and environmental responsibility for growers, but adoption of these policies is slow and voluntary.
Allen says new regulations would legitimize the medical marijuana industry, setting it apart from the illegal growing operations, which are at a competitive advantage.
California currently has a multimillion dollar black-market cannabis industry, and illegal growing has caused environmental concerns. As part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency drought package passed in March, $2 million was set aside to fight illegal water diversion for illegal marijuana growing operations.
In response to these concerns, Allen and his 750-member group have hired lobbyists to work with politicians at the State Capitol to make sure their interests are represented as the groundwork for new regulations is being laid.
Because medical marijuana is not a regulated industry, growers also do not have access to state agricultural programs and incentives — something Allen would also like to see changed. Medical marijuana farmers are also unable to obtain business licenses, which would allow them to have business bank accounts and apply for bank loans.
Currently, two bills — SB643 and AB34 — are focusing on setting up regulatory framework for the medical marijuana industry.
“Our fundamental goal is to have regulation that balances with existing legislation and increases our access to programs and incentives,” Allen says. “Working with both of the authors of these bills, we are hopeful about what they might do. They have resisted all of the stigma and focused on the fact that it’s a public policy question. We’re really excited about this fresh, new perspective.”
While specific details for either bill have yet to be announced, Allen is hopeful that one will pass this year ahead of a 2016 public vote on recreational use.
“Of course, if we’re going to do that in 2016, it would be so much better to have some of these questions already answered ahead of time,” Allen says. “But I believe this stands on its own merits as a public policy question. Our farmers are ready to pay taxes and work with state agencies. We just want to make sure the program is balanced and fair.”