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Is Pot Legalization Killing Medical Marijuana?

Recreational marijuana legalization could grant California's small-time pot growers their long-awaited day in the sun, provided they don't get pushed aside by the arrival of big money players with political clout.

Photo via Flickr user Rusty Blazenhoff

California loves to regulate. Everything from car emissions to foie gras has its restrictions. But nearly 20 years after becoming the first state to approve medical marijuana, and despite being home to over one million legal medical marijuana patients, there remains virtually no statewide oversight of the plant's cultivation, processing, or distribution. That may be about to change.

In late May, the California Assembly merged two competing bills (one backed by the medical marijuana industry, the other with strong law enforcement support) to forge a compromise that seems like it may actually pass. If approved, the bill would bring robust "seed-to-sale" cannabis regulations to California for the first time. Naturally, nobody's completely thrilled with this new hybrid legislation, but everyone shares the same strong impetus for finally moving forward.


"There definitely seems to be an urgency this time around in the legislature," Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told VICE. "Lawmakers in Sacramento are pushing to get something in place before adult use [non-medical] legalization arrives."

And if California voters approve recreational marijuana in November 2016, as expected, Reiman will likely play a leading role in that effort as the DPA's point person on drafting and passing a ballot initiative. Other, possibly-conflicting initiatives are also in the works, but none are nearly so high profile, well-funded, or likely to actually make the ballot.

In 2010, the last time recreational legalization went before the electorate, many activists and established medical marijuana providers felt locked out of the conversation. That initiative ultimately failed, but this time Reiman says a broad coalition of marijuana law reform organizations and other stakeholders have a seat at the table, and there is a sense of agreement on how to move forward.

"Where the constraint on the consensus comes in is looking at the current system of regulation of medical marijuana, and how that [will] be compatible or not compatible with a new adult use market," Reiman explained.

It's a fault line every state that legalizes marijuana will have to deal with, but nowhere are the stakes as high as in California, at once the world's 9th largest economy and the nation's longstanding leading producer of cannabis. If small-time growers can't hold their ground in pot's promised land, after all, where they've got the deepest roots and strongest culture, where can they hold on?


Deep Roots

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215 (The Compassionate Use Act), which expressly states that "patients and their primary caregivers who obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes upon the recommendation of a physician are not subject to criminal prosecution or sanction." The initiative didn't authorize multi-million dollar retail dispensaries, huge outdoor cannabis farms, or warehouse-sized indoor grows, but they weren't explicitly banned either. So instead of deciding the issue once and for all, Prop 215 ended up kicking off a prolonged grey market in California, complete with federal, state, and local enforcement raids on both cultivators and distributors, county ordinances varying from enthusiastic green lights to total bans, and a series of landmark legal cases to decide everything from whether doctors can recommend cannabis (yes) to whether cities can ban dispensaries (also yes).

Photo via Flickr user Dank Depot

The passage and implementation of any new initiative will therefore face the steep, immediate challenge of creating, from the ground up, a statewide recreational marijuana system that can co-exist with a widely divergent patchwork of local medical marijuana regulations, or whatever the legislature manages to set in motion before recreational pot takes root.

Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, the first three states to make this transition, have distinctly different histories when it comes to medical marijuana, and each has taken a unique approach to full legalization, but in all three cases, the new, recreational marketplace is at once more tightly-regulated and more heavily-taxed than its predecessor. Some in the recreational industry view the medical system as unfair competition. And since the recreational industry largely represents "the investor class" (as opposed to the hodgepodge of activists and erstwhile outlaws typically growing and selling medical marijuana), the government has been siding with them in every state.


In Washington, the governor just signed a bill that will effectively merge the two markets together, a move supported by the recreational industry and opposed by the medical marijuana industry. In Oregon, a special committee in the state Senate just passed legislation that could impose tight new restrictions on medical marijuana. And in May, Colorado's governor signed into law what the Associated Press described as "a crackdown" on medical marijuana caregivers.

Photo via Flickr user Chuck Grimmett

Small Farmers vs. "Big Marijuana"

While the language of DPA's proposed California ballot initiative isn't yet written, and won't be made public until "late Autumn," Reiman says her organization and the others involved are committed to making sure the state's marijuana future includes a place for the little guy (and gal), while protecting the interests of patients, so long as everyone remembers that the key goal isn't enacting legalization, but ending prohibition.

"How do we best serve seriously ill patients who may need large amounts of cannabis and could get priced out of a recreational market? How do we protect the small grower? How do we ensure this industry isn't taken over by large outside interests? Those are vital conversations we're having, and all stakeholders should take part," Reiman explained. "In the meantime, we can quibble all day about how the perfect regulatory system would look, and never agree, but what we can all agree on is that 10,000 felonies for marijuana in California every year is not OK. So at the end of this process, while we're not going to have something that everybody loves, it's going to be whole hell of a lot better than criminality."


Reiman suggests interested parties reach out directly to reformers and speak up in support of tiered licensing fee structures that lower the financial bar of entry, direct-to-consumer sales (such as farmer's markets) that improve margins for small producers, and other regulations that incentivize a decentralized cannabis economy. Otherwise, the coming wave of legalization could end up washing away the many mom and pop growers who've kept the plant alive and available since the 1960s.

Photo via Flickr user trawin

After decades spent in the shadows, facing helicopter surveillance, armed raids, and long prison sentences for growing what most people have come to accept as a beneficial plant, Northern California's estimated 10,000 marijuana farmers must now prepare themselves for the kind of volatile postbellum period that follows any prolonged conflict. Carpetbaggers have already begun staking their claims on the spoils of war, and nobody doubts that lots of already-rich people will figure out a way to make a killing off weed. The only question is if the small farmers can keep on making a living.

That explains the anxious, standing-room-only crowd that greeted California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom last month when he traveled up to Humboldt County, the state's most legendary marijuana production region, for a public forum on pot policy. An avowed legalization proponent (he currently serves as chairman of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy), Newsom also toured a medical cannabis garden during his visit.

"I learned an enormous amount by listening to the voices of people who are going to be disproportionately affected by any type of legalization and taxation strategy we implement… voices we don't always hear," Newsom told the local Press Democrat following his face-to-face with the Real Pot Growers of Humboldt County. "I support [legalization] of cannabis, but [only] if it protects the environment, our kids, public safety, local autonomy and small farmers."

Newsom's commission will soon release a set of official recommendations for recreational legalization in California. Reiman says her group will wait to see that report, and any action by the state legislature on medical marijuana, before moving forward with their own plans. Growers statewide are left in the familiar position of hoping for the best and planning for the worst.

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