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Next Steps in Implementing California Marijuana Law

Despite uncertainty at the federal level, California is making steady progress toward creating a system to regulate the legal use of marijuana. In many ways, the most interesting activity in marijuana policy is taking place at the local level, as counties and towns wrestle with how to define the role of the industry in their communities.

This year’s state budget includes a trailer bill designed to address a number of implementation issues raised by the passage of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act in 2015 and Proposition 64 last fall. The biggest challenge was reconciling the two laws to create a single regulatory framework for both medical and recreational marijuana, a recommendation put forth in a recent PPIC report. The trailer bill also includes other provisions that aim to clarify and fill in details around implementation. For example, the bill:

  • Enhances environmental protections and specifies organic standards.
  • Makes it possible for smaller growers to form co-ops to enable them to compete with larger producers.
  • Allows for the designation of appellations, similar to the wine industry.
  • Supports a study of driving under the influence and creates a task force to make recommendations about enforcement. It also creates a new “open container” definition for cannabis and driving, making it an offense (with a $100 fine) to have in a car marijuana that is loose or in a container that is open or has a broken seal.
  • Establishes a method to collect the cultivation and excise taxes imposed by Proposition 64.

Although Californians have supported the legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana, possession of the substance remains illegal under federal law. In past years, Congress has passed legislation that makes enforcement of federal marijuana law a low priority. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has opposed relaxing restrictions on marijuana, has reportedly sent a letter to Congress asking that it rescind that directive. Like so many federal-state issues at that moment, it is very difficult to predict future decisions concerning enforcement of federal marijuana law.

The relationship between the state and local jurisdictions is clearer. One section of the trailer bill reaffirmed that the new regulatory structure does not limit the authority of cities, towns, and counties. But the clarity of that relationship doesn’t mean that there isn’t controversy. Conflicts have emerged within communities as they try to balance different local interests.

For example, Proposition 64 allowed for the cultivation of up to six plants per individual. In January, the city of Fontana passed an ordinance requiring any resident who wanted to grow up to six plants purchase a $411 permit. Getting a permit required that the applicant have no prior drug convictions or overdue fines. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance have joined together to file a lawsuit claiming the ordinance is too restrictive.

Calaveras County also illustrates the challenges of implementing marijuana regulations at the local level. At the same time that Proposition 64 received support statewide, 67% of Calaveras voters approved a county tax on marijuana production. The tax vote appeared to signal the county’s support for the marijuana industry. This past spring, however, after four of the five seats on the county board turned over, that body began considering a ban on commercial cultivation. With more than 1,000 registered growers (who each paid $5,000 in fees to operate) in a county of 45,000 people, the proposed ban is controversial.

Findings from the PPIC Statewide Survey support the idea that cannabis becomes divisive when the issue moves closer to home. When asked about the federal role, 60% of California adults and 66% of likely voters in our May survey said that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana law in states that have decided to allow marijuana use. And though a majority of California adults (56%) say marijuana should be legal, state residents are divided when it comes to retail sales of marijuana in their communities. While 48% favor retail sales of recreational marijuana in their city or community, a similar proportion (47%) are opposed. Regionally, opposition to retail sales is highest in Orange/San Diego Counties (53% oppose). As cities across the state determine the regulatory standards for marijuana sales, they may find divergent views within their communities.

Federal, state, and local governments all have a say in marijuana regulation. It is clear from the issues yet to be resolved that the statewide election was just the beginning of a complex process to build the regulated, legal market for cannabis that California voters supported.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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