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Cannabis advocates, experts say California legalization efforts fall to local leaders next

While the state signals support for regulated cannabis retail, local leaders will have a say in how their communities respond.

SACRAMENTO (CN) — With a package of cannabis regulation bills signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, advocates and experts say it's now up to local voters and leaders to decide how their communities will handle the drug.

Researchers and cannabis industry advocates say the legislation signed this week shows promise to address a large gap in cannabis retail and access, as the majority of cities and counties in California still ban commercial marijuana sales.

“On behalf of our members, and all Californians, we thank Governor Newsom for his commitment to cannabis legalization, human rights, and workers’ rights,” said Ellen Komp, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a statement.

Scott Burris, a law professor at Temple University, said California is taking the right approach with marijuana.

“Regulating rather than criminalizing drugs, drug use and drug users is absolutely the better path. Prohibition has never seriously interfered with drug use, and comes with high economic and human costs in incarceration, policing and violence – not to mention racial and economic inequities,” he said.

While all drugs have risks regardless of legality, Burris said a responsible government concerned with public health and safety regulates the drug business and how people use drugs to minimize harm.

“That means that (the government) rules keep the drugs themselves safe, and uses regulatory tools like taxes and limits on sale venues and hours to encourage users towards safer, lower risk and lower potency products,” he said. “California is right to do more – and probably should do even more – to regulate cannabis to lower consumption and move people away from higher potency products.”

In this Friday, May 24, 2019 photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. Oakland City Council will vote Tuesday, June 4, 2019, to decriminalize the possession and use of entheogenic, or psychoactive, plants and fungi. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

In his approval message signed Sept. 18, Newsom said policymakers need to increase their efforts to reduce barriers to access and expand the legal cannabis market to effectively “redress the harms of cannabis prohibition.” He said local opposition, “rigid bureaucracy” and federal prohibition are still challenges for the industry and consumers. 

“For too many Californians, the promise of cannabis legalization remains out of reach,” Newsom said. “These measures build on the important strides our state has made toward this goal, but much work remains to build an equitable, safe and sustainable legal cannabis industry.”

One of the bills he signed, Senate Bill 1326, creates a process for California to enter into agreements with other states to allow cannabis transactions with entities outside California.

Another bill keeps Californians who use marijuana off the clock from facing penalties from their employer. 

Assembly Bill 2188 makes it illegal starting January 2024 for employers to discriminate against employees for cannabis use in their personal lives. It also prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on drug test results that detect inactive cannabis compounds, even from months prior. Instead, employers will have to use tests that check for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound in cannabis that can indicate impairment.

Workers can still be penalized for coming to work high. The bill doesn’t apply to employees in the building and construction industries and doesn’t preempt state or federal laws requiring workers to test before taking certain jobs, receiving federal funding or entering into federal contracts.

Newsom also signed Senate Bill 1186 – which preempts local bans on medicinal cannabis delivery to expand patients’ access to legal products – and Assembly Bill 1706, designed to ensure Californians with old cannabis-related convictions will have their convictions sealed. Attorney General Rob Bonta recently issued a bulletin urging county district attorneys and courts to take steps to finish this process.

“This is a must for people of color, especially for Black folks disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs, which would further support California’s reentry goals,” said Assemblymember Mia Bonta, a Democrat from Oakland and the bill’s author, in a statement.

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“As a result of California failing to complete the automatic sealings required by AB 1793, tens of thousands of people eligible for relief continue to carry the weight of these cannabis records,” said Gracie Burger, state policy director at Last Prisoner Project. “Other states adopting critical retroactive relief related to cannabis prohibition are looking to California to get this right.”

Newsom touted these bills as proof his administration will strengthen the state’s movement toward legalization with tax relief to consumers and the cannabis industry while building enforcement tools against illegal cannabis operators and expanding legal retail. The governor has directed the state’s Department of Public Health experts to use current scientific research to review increasing high-potency cannabis and hemp products, and the Department of Cannabis Control must fund research on cannabis potency.

“This is the first time California’s indicated willingness to engage in interstate cannabis commerce, which will open an avenue of sales for farmers in the future,” said Hirsh Jain, founder of cannabis consulting firm Ananda Strategy.

Meanwhile, cities and counties across the state are looking to OK allowing new recreational marijuana markets, eyeing big returns from sales tax on retailers. At least 28 cities may initiate cannabis ballot initiatives this fall, the most since the state began regulating adult use in 2018, according to MJBiz Daily. Some, even in conservative strongholds like Huntington Beach in Orange County and Healdsburg in Sonoma County, will address local prohibition through marijuana business tax measures which could ask voters whether retail marijuana businesses should operate in their area.

Mendocino County, California, is home to approximately 87,000 people, and many rolling hills like this one photographed in March 2016 on Highway 20 northeast of Ukiah, the county seat. Often green and lush in the spring, the hills turn golden and dry by summer. Mendocino County is known for its picturesque, rugged and isolated coastline, redwood forests and wine, but its main claim to fame in recent decades has been cannabis production. Part of the Emerald Triangle along with Humboldt and Trinity counties to the north, up to one third of the economic activity in the county has been attributed to marijuana cultivation. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

CannaBusiness Law lawyer and NORML member Kyndra Sheri Miller said while the bills are “heading in the right direction,” some conservative portions of the state may continue to resist the move toward regulation. She said the state has done “what it could” and is leaving the rest up to local voters and leaders.

“It definitely helps to educate the more conservative communities about the benefits of allowing legal cannabis businesses in their area – however, it rubs up against the deference to local law that we allow for. We want our cities and counties to be able to come up with local laws that best suit their community, and I respect that,” she said.

“As we get closer to ending federal prohibition, local entities should take into account the studies done, look at the communities that have allowed businesses to exist and the impact they have had on the community – both positive and negative – and then listen to the voters. We are at the end of the day talking about a non-toxic plant, and should be taking an objective look, instead of a preconceived notion of what cannabis is,” Miller added.

Jain said while about 75% of cities voted for Proposition 64, indicating large support for legal cannabis sales across the state, only about one in three California cities allows the sale of legal cannabis within their borders. The measure also enshrined local control into law, keeping power over controlling retail sales largely in the hands of individual cities. 

“The people on those city councils don’t really reflect the cannabis views of their residents,” Jain said. “But now citizens are putting initiatives on the ballots, which shows how out of step these folks are with their constituents.”

He also said the cannabis industry faces "immense" tax burdens, which the legislation does not entirely alleviate.

"Even if more cities come online, people still have an incentive to patronize the illegal market," he said. "I think there's a looming catastrophe on the horizon, given the combination of tax burdens and the larger economic environment which these businesses face."

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