California took the first step Thursday to regulate its nearly 20-year-old medical marijuana industry, one that lawmakers said currently resembles something out of the "wild, wild West."
AB266 merges what were two competing bills and attempts to set up state regulations that will pass muster with the federal Department of Justice.
The measure approved by the Assembly would create the Office of Marijuana Regulation within the governor's office, with help from the departments of Public Health and Food and Agriculture and the Board of Equalization, which would collect licensing fees. Local governments could still license or reject commercial cannabis operations. The bill calls for involvement from other state agencies, including criminal background checks by the state Department of Justice and wastewater standards by the State Water Resources Control Board.
It largely leaves it to those offices and agencies to develop standards, licensing and regulations.
"There was a reference to the wild West, and that is what this bill is trying to move away from," said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda. "I think that we can all agree that stronger regulation is needed ... and is long overdue."
California was the first state, in 1996, to legalize the sale of marijuana for medical use, but has since fallen behind the rest of the nation, said Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have recently legalized recreational pot use to varying degrees.
The bill was sent to the Senate on a 50-5 vote, though supporters said they will keep working on the measure during this year's legislative session.
It won support from Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who spent 28 years as a California Highway Patrol officer and said the measure will help "to tighten up some of the abuses that currently exist."
But it was opposed by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, who served with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department for 30 years. He said the bill doesn't do enough to regulate marijuana-impaired drivers and keep pot-infused candy and other goodies from children, though Bonta said both will be more highly regulated than they are now.
"It's the wild, wild West," Cooper said. "I think we're heading in the wrong direction."
The legislation was among hundreds of bills lawmakers considered this week ahead of a Friday deadline to pass bills out of their house origin.