California medical marijuana backers ready ballot measure

Medical marijuana advocates want to create a statewide system for licensing, regulating and taxing the industry as a way of persuading federal officials to ease up on their crackdown of California’s pot clubs and growers. After months of study, a coalition of medical marijuana activists led by Americans for Safe Access and a labor union that represents dispensary workers in Northern California, have proposed a 2012 ballot initiative that would create an appointed Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement charged with overseeing businesses and nonprofits that grow, distribute, sell and test pot both in its raw state and in finished products like food items.

The measure was submitted to the secretary of state Thursday and still must be cleared by the attorney general before its supporters can begin gathering signatures. Backers hope that empowering a state body to monitor the industry would show the federal government that California is serious about keeping marijuana in the hands of residents who are authorized to use it. In October, the four U.S. attorneys based in the state announced a coordinated action to shutter pot clubs and growers they accused of acting as a front for drug dealers.

“We think that this initiative will create a level playing ground that law enforcement will embrace because it creates a sensible process,” Dan Rush, national director of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ medical cannabis division. “The U.S. attorneys became hostile to medical marijuana in California and what we are doing is offering a responsible, dignified and sincere approach to the citizens of California.” The proposed initiative also would target local governments that have banned marijuana businesses outright by requiring counties and cities to authorize at least one dispensary for every 50,000 residents. Local governments would be allowed to enact dispensary bans only with voter approval.

At the state level, the envisioned regulatory scheme would be financed through application and registration fees, as well as through a 2.5 percent retail sales tax on marijuana and pot-infused products. Most of the proceeds would go toward running the enforcement program, although any profits would be earmarked for medical marijuana research and for supporting uninsured emergency room visits in the state, the only beneficiary not directly related to the industry.

Coalition members including a growers’ group based in Humboldt, Drug Policy Alliance and the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws started crafting the initiative earlier this year. California voters in November 2010 rejected a first-of-its-kind ballot measure that would have legalized recreational use of the drug by adults and authorized local governments to impose taxes on its sale and cultivation. Some medical marijuana backers were among the measure’s most vocal opponents.

California was the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana, through a 1996 citizens’ initiative. The program created under that law is by far the most liberal of the 16 states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes. Doctors may recommend pot to a patient for any ailments for which they think it may provide relief, for example, and the state has no centralized system for monitoring users or the hundreds of storefront dispensaries that have sprung up to supply them.

If it passes, the proposed Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act would constitute the first legislative changes to California’s 15-year-old medical marijuana since state lawmakers in 2003 passed laws requiring counties to issue voluntary identification cards to authorized medical marijuana patients and set guidelines for how much pot users could legally possess. Rush said the initiative’s supporters plan to provide details about their campaign strategy and goals in early January.

The measure could end up sharing the November 2012 ballot with another marijuana legalization measure, as supporters have submitted language to the secretary of state for at least three different ones. Don Duncan, Americans for Safe Access’ state director, said it was important for the state to get on the right track with its existing medical marijuana laws before tackling an initiative that would treat pot like alcohol. “We have come to a point in the field with medical cannabis where we need some sort of statewide standards make things more consistent and rational throughout the state,” Duncan said. “We are trying to fix medical marijuana because this is unfinished work, and we think this should be the priority right now because this is so overdue.

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