California must clarify its murky medical marijuana laws 

The legal status of medical marijuana is an ongoing puzzle. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the cultivation of medical pot by people suffering from medical ailments or their caregivers. But marijuana, legal or otherwise, is still considered illegal under federal law. As a result, federal law enforcement officials have conducted a disturbing number of raids of medical pot dispensaries around the state, arresting people and subjecting them to onerous penalties.

The unnecessary federal raids are entirely due to the obstinacy and rigidity of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as the willingness of the Obama administration to let these pointless raids go on. But the state of California shares some of the blame by enacting such a poorly written law.

Prop. 215 merely gave the right to grow or distribute medical marijuana to those patients — or their caregivers — who have been certified by a doctor as suffering from one of a wide variety of health problems. The law did next to nothing to regulate what has become a multimillion-dollar industry.

As a result, marijuana dispensaries have popped up all over the state, with no oversight from the state. Municipal governments have been forced to deal with such headaches as blight, criminality and organized crime. The legal and social chaos has helped federal officials make the case that marijuana is not an effective medicine, but a pernicious drug that degrades neighborhoods and hurts human beings.

That’s why we support Assembly Bill 2312, the most comprehensive state proposal to regulate the medical marijuana industry. Introduced by state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, the bill would limit the number of dispensaries in any given city to one for every 50,000 people. In addition, the bill would create a state licensing board, known as the Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement. The board would be empowered to craft rules governing the sale, cultivation and distribution of medical pot, and would review all applicants for dispensary licenses.

This will be an important step forward in the medical marijuana industry. Prop. 215 unleashed an army of less-than-reputable characters on cities and counties across the state — drug dealers in all but name who used Prop. 215 as a fig leaf to cover their unsavory businesses. Cities have used the tools available to them, such as zoning laws, to rein in such establishments, but they shouldn’t have had to. Under Ammiano’s bill, the state would take control of this potentially dangerous industry.

Moreover, AB 2312 will clarify certain elements that were left out of the original law. Prop. 215 does not explicitly legalize the sale of medical marijuana, and many California cities have seized on this to crack down on medical dispensaries. This new law will close the loophole that has been seized on by the feds.

None of this will necessarily stop federal officials from raiding pot dispensaries and hauling people off to jail. But the fight to legalize medical marijuana is a marathon, not a sprint. Regulating the industry — and weeding out the worst of its entrepreneurs — will help in the ultimate goal of repealing federal laws against medical marijuana. The next step is passage of Ammiano’s bill and a signature from Gov. Jerry Brown.

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