Photo illustration by Jason Silverio

Federal memo sparks last-minute push to regulate medical marijuana

Inspired by a federal Justice Department memo, a long-stymied effort to regulate medical cannabis at the state level in California was revived Monday.

But in order for the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Control Act from Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, to become law, a months-long legislative process will need to be completed by Friday — and will need to overcome the resistance from law enforcement lobbies and Sacramento Republicans, which foiled similar attempts at reform over the past year.

California was the first state in the country to allow the medical use of marijuana in 1996. Since then, 19 other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws.

However, California law places the responsibility of regulating the drug's use to cities and counties.

The result is a “patchwork” of inconsistent and sometimes conflicting rules and limits, which federal law enforcement has used as justification to shut down and prosecute state-legal marijuana operations.

Nine of The City's medical marijuana dispensaries have been shut down under federal pressure in less than two years.

Reacting to limited legalization of marijuana for adult use in Colorado and Washington, Deputy Attorney General James Cole suggested in an Aug. 29 memo that states in which medical marijuana use is allowed within a “strong regulatory framework” would not see federal interference.

That helped revive Ammiano's legislation, which if approved would create a new division within the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to oversee the medical marijuana industry.

Mandatory commercial licenses to grow, transport and sell the drug would be issued by the Division of Medical Cannabis Regulation and Enforcement, which would have peace officers to enforce the rules.

Pre-existing local rules would be grandfathered in, and cities and counties would be free to add additional taxes or rules such as zoning regulations.

Ammiano's bill, which is supported by labor unions, must clear the state Legislature by the end of the week. If it passes both the Assembly and Senate, it must be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown within 12 days.

Ammiano did not provide comment by press deadline Monday.

Marijuana in all forms — including non-psychoactive industrial hemp — remains illegal under federal law.

Despite calls from law enforcement leaders such as Attorney General Kamala Harris for the Legislature to pass uniform rules on medical marijuana, other efforts to create uniform statewide marijuana regulations have failed over the past two years.

A similar Ammiano bill was defeated in May and in 2012, and a bill in the state Senate that would make “guidelines” from the Attorney General's Office binding law was defeated after lobbying from law enforcement.

Bay Area NewsCalifornia medical marijuanaTom AmmianoU.S. Department of Justice

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