With California voters likely to consider legalizing recreational marijuana use next year, state lawmakers approved a package of legislation that would create the first statewide licensing and operating rules for pot growers and retail weed outlets since the state became the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996.
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Lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature pushed through three Democratic bills late Friday to set up the state's first regulatory framework for the free-wheeling medical marijuana industry, sending the proposal to Gov. Jerry Brown.
"After 20 years, we have an agreement on a comprehensive regulatory regime and that is historic," said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, the lead author of the main Assembly bill. "We knew it had to be done this year."
The framework seeks to manage medical marijuana from seed to smoke, calling for 17 separate license categories, detailed labeling requirements and a product-tracking system complete with bar codes and shipping manifests.
If enacted as drafted, it would not only impose strict controls on an industry that never has had to comply with any but provide a template for how recreational marijuana might be treated if it is legalized.
Another major piece of legislation approved Friday was a landmark climate change bill that Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon were forced to scale back this week as lawmakers approved dozens of bills.
Among the potential new laws that made it to the governor's desk on the Legislature's last day of business was a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives. The measure faces an uncertain future with the Democratic governor, a former Jesuit seminarian who has not said whether he will sign it.
Also Friday, a bipartisan group of 47 state Assembly members delivered a letter to Brown asking him to declare a special session to tackle problems related to California's ongoing drought.
Racing to meet a deadline for passing the marijuana plan hashed out late Thursday, senators on Friday night approved three bills to establish a regulatory structure.
One, AB266 by Bonta, establishes a Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation to oversee licensing and operating rules for pot growers, marijuana product producers and retail shops.
AB243 by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, authorizes the state to use licensing fees to carry out the framework and a fund for helping local governments address environmental problems associated with marijuana cultivation.
A third bill, SB643 by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, would crack down on clinics that specialize in issuing medical marijuana recommendations to residents without valid health needs and create pesticide standards for pot plants and labeling requirements for edible marijuana products.
Whatever emerges would not have an immediate impact on the existing medical marijuana landscape because the licensing provisions would not take effect until 2018, said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association.
Pot dispensaries already licensed by local governments would eventually have to comply with the product tracking, advertising, criminal background check and job training provisions required for a state license, but they could continue to operate and buy marijuana from unlicensed farmers until then, Bradley said.
The near-certainty that one or more initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana will be on the 2016 ballot put pressure on lawmakers to get the state's medical marijuana house in order. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it does not plan to raid medical marijuana sites or interfere in recreational pot sales as long as states have solid regulatory schemes in place.
The bill authors said the package would charge the new medical marijuana bureau with overseeing every aspect of the industry, from pot farms and medical clinics to product safety labs and retail distribution.
The office charged with overseeing the new standards will be housed within the California Department of Consumer Affairs. But the Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Public Health will have prominent roles in their implementation and enforcement.
The governor has expressed skepticism over the wisdom of legalizing recreational marijuana use, but his office was involved in crafting the medical marijuana compromise.
Associated Press writers Judy Lin, Don Thompson and Juliet Williams contributed to this report.