SAN FRANCISCO -- A bill to regulate California's billion-dollar medical marijuana industry cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when the state assembly's public safety committee voted to move it forward.
AB 473, introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), would require all pot-related entities, except for caregivers and patients, to follow rules to be created by the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.
As it stands, medical marijuana in California is "chaos," Ammiano told The Huffington Post. "It's never been regulated by the state as any other business. Cities and counties don't know what to do or what they can do. Police are unsure how to respond, and the federal actions are confusing."
Voters in 1996 made California the first state to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes. In the years since, medical marijuana has flourished, generating more than $100 million in tax revenue each year. But in late 2011, the Obama administration launched an aggressive crackdown on California dispensaries, forcing hundreds of businesses to close and throwing thousands out of work.
Some local governments in California carefully monitor the medical marijuana industry. Others don't. Oakland and Santa Cruz, for example, have strict rules. Los Angeles is unregulated and has been called "the poster child of chaos."
U.S. attorneys "are using a lack of statewide regulation as justification," former Ammiano spokesman Quintin Mecke told HuffPost last year. "If we create regulations, we've removed every reasonable explanation on their part to justify the crackdown."
Ammiano said the U.S. crackdown shows "some attempt to overract to the bad actors by punishing the good actors." He added: "We are hoping this bill will distinguish those good actors, who are very supportive of regulation." He described bad actors as dispensary owners who operate without a permit and farmers who pollute state parks with illegal growing operations. His bill doesn't include specific regulations, but it gives Alcohol Beverage Control the authority to do so.
Industry advocates have said that establishing clear rules is an essential step before pushing to legalize recreational use of pot in California.
"One of the reasons that [California's 2010 initiative to legalize marijuana] didn't pass is because many communities had an unpleasant experience with cannabis regulation," Steve DeAngelo, co-founder and executive director of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the country's largest medical marijuana dispensary, told HuffPost last fall.
DeAngelo explained that Colorado's recent vote approving full-scale legalization was bolstered by the state's well-regulated medical marijuana industry. "States that have a positive experience with medical cannabis, like in Colorado, that tends to lead to greater support of adult use," he said.
Ammiano withdrew a similar bill he authored last year after conservative members of the legislature added a provision that would have allowed local governments to ban dispensaries.
Ammiano said support for the measure is stronger this time.
"This is all about patients," he explained. "We hope to provide some sanity and make sure patients' rights are honored."