California’s Cannabis Conundrum

Last Friday, I chaired a conference in downtown Los Angeles on Medical and Recreational Marijuana in California. This was the most explosive and interesting seminar in which I have participated.


California was a pioneer in creating our country’s first set of medical marijuana laws, yet it somehow cannot rally around instituting uniform regulations for medical marijuana and it cannot pass legislation legalizing adult use. California’s inability to move forward on marijuana has left it in a state of confusion and sometimes even chaos. Almost all panelists at this seminar agreed that 2016 will be the year for legalization of marijuana for recreational use in California. Yet the speakers also nearly unanimously admitted that they do not have a good idea of what that program will look like or what the mechanisms will be for California to protect and preserve its existing medical marijuana system. As I have said before about Oregon, California feels like Washington five years ago — a quasi-legal gray market state where nearly everything (and, sometimes, nothing) goes, depending on the city you are in.

The speakers at this conference covered everything from the history of marijuana in California, its plans for the future, and the legal calamities that have resulted from the state’s inability to have a regulated medical marijuana system. There was even a substance abuse panel where the speaker and an attendee nearly came to blows over whether marijuana should be legalized or not, essentially (and unexpectedly) encapsulating for the audience the state’s struggle with the overall legalization and regulation of marijuana. Moderating that dispute made me feel like Jerry Springer.

The speakers emphasized that by 2016, California will likely have its pick of the litter when it comes to picking and choosing from regulations that have proven effective for other states. Many of the speakers talked of how California’s current medical marijuana system cannot be stamped out completely since there is a need for medical cannabis and there is already an entrenched industry devoted to it.

Senator Lou Correa, a Democrat from Orange County (ponder that for just a minute) cut to the chase as the last speaker of the day, letting the crowd know that well-capitalized, private interest groups will likely maintain great influence over any recreational use vote in 2016. He pointed out that whatever legislation those folks back may not include protections for medical marijuana since California’s currently unregulated medical cannabis industry will pose nothing but competition for its emerging –and likely to be heavily regulated– recreational industry.

One theme became clearer throughout the day: California needs to regulate its current marijuana industry. One panel was devoted entirely to explaining how to navigate the laws of various cities and counties in California as they apply to marijuana businesses. Given that the state’s highest court ruled that cities and counties can ban dispensaries and marijuana businesses at will, there is not much to say beyond that California is a patchwork of regulations that vary from city to city, making it even more difficult for the state to give the MMJ industry a regulatory facelift.

California has already had a tremendous impact on cannabis in the United States and there is no doubt that it will eventually have a tremendous impact on the legal cannabis economy as well. But, for now, it is a battleground where the very legality of medical marijuana businesses is still in question. Unless and until California provides uniform regulations for both medical and recreational cannabis, the lines between what is legal and illegal will remain blurred and California will continue to disappoint.