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Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento

“As a breast cancer survivor and a dispensary operator for eleven years, I feel that my voice has both weight and wisdom. I want to be an example to my daughter and all women to challenge the status quo, to speak out and make our voices and hearts heard.”

— Jewel Mathieson, June 2018

Nearly three years after a majority of Californians voted for Prop 64, which called for the adult use of cannabis, the California cannabis world is still in upheaval and there’s no stability in sight. In many parts of the Golden State, there’s a backlash against marijuana, though cities, towns and counties are also imposing taxes on cannabis businesses.

The big cannabis picture emerged from the fog of politics on the annual California Citizen Lobby Day, when residents of Sonoma, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, San Jose and elsewhere gathered in Sacramento on June 4 to speak to their representatives in the state legislature on the subject of cannabis.

Senators and assemblymen listened politely and made no promises. Citizens came away feeling that they were heard and that grass roots democracy works, at least for a day.

At the Citizen Hotel on J. Street near the state capitol—before lobbying began—one hundred or so cannabis advocates, cannabis lawyers, cannabis doctors and cannabis users, listened to speakers who talked about the complex and often contradictory world of cannabis in California.

Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML, the oldest cannabis lobbing organization in the nation, told the audience that “two thirds of the municipalities in the Golden State have no legal pot dispensaries” and that “there’s a crack down on cannabis cultivation from one end of the state to the other.”

Of the 600 bills before the state legislature this session, 60 were about cannabis: cannabis delivery services, cannabis dispensaries, cannabis for pets—veterinarians are against it —cannabis and employment, and the removal of felony cannabis convictions from criminal records in California.

A legislative aide to an assemblyman told two citizen lobbyists from Sonoma, “Yes, the state legislature is a factory that produces laws very efficiently.”

According to NORML’s Gieringer, there are 100,000 felony convictions on the books for cannabis in California. District attorneys in Alameda and San Francisco, he explained, have volunteered to go through their records and expunge cannabis felony convictions in their jurisdictions. Senate Bill 1793, introduced in January 2018 by Rob Bonta from the East Bay, would make the “resentencing” process statewide. Not surprisingly, NORML supports it wholeheartedly.

Bonta is the first Filipino American legislator in the entire history of California and a real standout on the subject of cannabis. If his bill becomes law, the California Attorney General’s office would take charge of the entire process of clearing all felony cannabis convictions. That would make the nightly news and rewrite cannabis history.

Earlier this year, Sonoma County District Attorney, Jill Ravitch, announced that she would not initiate the process of expunging cannabis convictions in her jurisdiction. Individuals themselves would have to initiate self-expungment of criminal records. Others have followed her lead.

Senate Bill 829, which NORML has also endorsed, would exempt cannabis compassionate care programs from paying cultivation and excise taxes. California State Senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, introduced 829. Assemblyman Jim Wood who represents the 2nd Assembly District—which encompasses large parts of the North Coast—is a co-author of the bill.

At the Citizen Hotel, Gieringer explained that NORML wants the state legislature to extend civil rights to cannabis users. That means no obligatory on-the-job, random drug testing by employers, as well as the opportunity for patients to use cannabis to help end addictions to opioids.

The federal government does not allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for individuals suffering from opioid addiction, though studies show that it helps in many cases.

Ever since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, Washington, D.C. has categorized cannabis as a substance with no medical benefits. Indeed, while some rely on a joint, a pipe or an edible to get through the day, marijuana is not addictive in the way that nicotine and opioids are. Research shows that no has ever died of a marijuana overdose, though in some cases there can be impairment and driving can be risky for some, though not for all individuals.

On the subject of drug testing, Gieringer explained that construction companies don’t want employees to be stoned on the job. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) argues that workers ought to have the legal right to smoke marijuana on their own time, away from work, in much the same way that workers enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine in their own homes at the end of the day.

Part of the problem for law enforcement, employers, testing services and users themselves, Gieringer reminded the audience, is that cannabis stays in the human body for days, even though the “stoned” sensation is long gone. A construction worker or a secretary or a nurse who smoked a joint on Saturday night would probably test positive for cannabis on Monday morning.

Matt Hummel, the chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in Oakland, covered some of the ground that Gieringer just couldn’t get to, given time constraints and the sheer mass of information.

During a break in the session, Hummel explained to a group of citizen lobbyists that the marijuana black market was thriving in Oakland in large part because the real estate market had made it all but impossible for many wanna-be dispensaries to enter the legitimate cannabis business.

“It’s a struggle to get a permit,” Hummel said. He added, “At the same time, big money for the cannabis industry has flooded Oakland.”

One long-time Sonoma cannabis cultivator called himself “disgruntled,” and added that he wasn’t going to apply for a permit from the county.

“I’m going to continue to do the outlaw thing,” he said.

Veteran cannabis advocate, Jewel Mathieson, attended the California Citizen Lobby Day and spoke out about SB 829 and AB 1793. A founding member of the Sonoma Patient Group (SPG), the oldest, longest running cannabis dispensary in Sonoma County, Mathieson also serves on SPG’s board of directors.

“As a breast cancer survivor and a dispensary operator for eleven years, I feel that my voice has both weight and wisdom,” she said. “I want to be an example to my daughter and all women to challenge the status quo, to speak out and make our voices and hearts heard.”

Mathieson added, “The war on drugs is and has always been essentially a war against the poor, blacks and Latinos. Passage of AB 1793 won’t end racism, but it will mean that many Californians will be able to come home from the Drug War and reclaim their lives. Hallelujah! Let’s have a well overdue jubilee.”

A week after the California Citizen Lobby Day, California NORML posted on its website (canorml.org/) the results from Election Day on June 5. There was good news and bad news. In the town of Yucca Valley in San Bernardino, cities defeated a measure that would have allowed state licensed commercial cannabis operations. In Sierra County, a measure prohibiting commercial marijuana cultivation, processing and dispensaries won by a significant margin.

On the plus side, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has long been “a staunch opponent of all things marijuana”—as California NORML’s Gieringer put it—announced a shift in her outlook on the subject. Indeed, a week before Election Day, she said that, “Federal law enforcement agents should not arrest Californians who are adhering to California law.”

Restive California cannabis advocates might find solace in small things and remember that change happens incrementally.

 

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