This weekend’s CalNORML reform conference in Berkeley sold out, prompting organizers to promise a larger venue next time. Their agenda was plenty big enough already, with complex issues facing medical cannabis advocates and proponents of legal, non-medical use. (Click here for CalNORML video coverage.)
Steph Sherer, the national director of Americans for Safe Access, called for more civil discourse after Prop. 19 launched a war of words online. But she didn’t mince words when she targeted “outrageous” cannabis taxes, like the ones passed by conference host Berkeley and nine other California cities in November.
“As an industry, those of you who are asking for taxation, it’s crazy, it’s absolutely insane…,” Sherer said. “That taxation is falling on the backs of patients – that’s the truth.”
Sherer’s comments reflected an apparent split of interests, which reached its rhetorical peak during last year’s Prop. 19 campaign. Many medical cannabis patients want to focus on regulations for cultivation and distribution, and they remain concerned that legalization efforts could hurt their hard-won gains.
Debby Goldsberry spoke of the need for industry self-regulation of everything from plant names to lab testing standards. “The first thing we have to do is get good local manufacturing regulations in place, ourselves, so that we can grow cannabis and show that it’s safe and get it to our patient members in a safe manner,” she said. Yet industry support and critical funding remain elusive.
George Mull of the California Cannabis Association said Prop. 19 had opened up new discussions with law enforcement, which is concerned about cannabis diverted to non-patients and to other states.
“What we’d like to do is move toward statewide regulation that would cover everything from seed to sale, cover cultivation and distribution, and license dispensaries at the statewide level the same way California licenses liquor providers,” said Mull, who opposed Prop. 19 along with many collective operators.
Even unabashed fans of legalization acknowledge the need for medical reforms, including CalNORML chief Dale Gieringer. “Nailing down” medical cannabis distribution would help ease public safety concerns about legalizing cannabis for adult use, he said.
“We’ve been pussyfooting around this, and dodging the issue,” Gieringer said. “In both AB 390 and Prop. 19 we said, ‘Well, we’re not going to touch medical marijuana, we’re going to establish this new system for adult use.’ But that won’t do. We really have to bite the bullet on this, because I think Californians feel uncomfortable by our failure to really do a good job establishing a safe and affordable distribution system for medical marijuana.”
In a lighter moment, Gieringer presented the “Friend of Freedom Award” to state Sen. Mark Leno, who pushed SB 1449 through the Legislature after three failed attempts. The bill that makes simple possession of cannabis an infraction was signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger last year.
Last week, Leno introduced Senate Bill 129, an employment non-discrimination bill. “All this bill does is very simply, and very clearly, puts into statute that a medical cannabis patient has a right to employment in California,” Leno said.
Leno also announced the reintroduction of his industrial hemp bill. “As farmers, in particular family farmers, are struggling for their lives right now, they need a good cash crop, and this makes such great sense,” he said.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said he would keep alive his bill to legalize small-scale possession and sales of non-medical cannabis. He shared a “quickie conversation” he had with Gov. Jerry Brown about legalization and decriminalization.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, marijuana … You know, that’s like papal infallibity. It’s a conundrum,’” Ammiano said, drawing laughs from the audience.
“But he does seriously see the issue (of legalization) as something that is going to happen, and where he lands on it, I think, has a lot to do with us,” Ammiano added.
Allen Davenport, a policy analyst with the state Board of Equalization, explained why medical cannabis isn’t exempt from state tax. “It’s not a prescribed drug. When it gets to be prescribed, we’ll stop bothering you,” he said wryly.
The new chair of the BOE – Jerome Horton – is committed to following state law despite reported federal threats to seize cannabis tax proceeds, Davenport said.
“In our compliance with the California law, we’re going to stand up to the DEA and say, ‘We have a state law to administer here, and we’re not causing you guys any problems,’” he said. Compliance remains an issue, however, with only about 300 dispensaries paying taxes, according to Davenport. That’s one reason why Horton proposed a Marijuana Control Act last year, which would require a source-to-sales tax stamp and tracking system for medical cannabis similar to that used for tobacco.
Dennis Peron made an unscheduled appearance at the podium, arguing that California has legalization already under the Compassionate Use Act.
“We call it ‘medical marijuana,’ and all use is medical. If you think about it that way, we’ve legalized it,” Peron said.
But Prop. 19 backers said they were committed to pushing legal status for adult-use cannabis, most likely without a sales component that would invite federal action. Several attorneys suggested the 2012 initiative should include the full repeal of the state’s prohibition laws.
“Whatever we decide is going to be in this initiative, the drafting needs to be for the purpose of implementation, not for the purpose of passing it,” said Bill Panzer, a Prop. 215 co-author.
But the questions remain about exactly what to implement, and when. The California Cannabis Hemp and Health Initiative favored by the late Jack Herer is getting a fresh look, as is a revamped Prop. 19 with more explicit protections for Prop. 215 patients.
“It’s what’s winnable that goes as far as possible,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “To put our dream thing out there, knowing it’s going to go down, why bother?”