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A Rash of Medical Pot Bans

While California's new medical cannabis regulations are spurring progressive cities to advance toward more access for patients, conservative towns are rushing to wind back the clock.

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Two months after California regulated medical marijuana for the first time, patients and the billion-dollar industry are facing a mixed set of reactions from cities and counties around the state. Oakland and Sacramento are crafting "cannabis enterprise zones" to reap the tax windfall from ten types of newly state-licensed medical pot activities. And with the clarity of the new state rules, Marin County and the cities of Santa Cruz and Long Beach are advancing toward permitting dispensaries or other activity. The battleground city of San Diego has three licensed clubs open, and more on the way. And even the Southern California desert town of Adelanto is aiming to wean itself from its private prison tax base by becoming the cannabis mega-grow capital of the state.

But in a darker picture, patients in other areas are facing an organized, statewide effort to shut down safe access to medical marijuana this Christmas. "There's a lot of positives and negatives," said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA).

A March 1 deadline to enact local regulations on medical pot that was included in the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) has generated a rash of the most restrictive bans that California patients have ever faced. Even though the state legislature is widely expected to repeal the deadline, about 25 California cities and counties are in the process of enacting bans on marijuana activity up to and including banning the indoor cultivation of a single plant.

Just last week, medical marijuana activity bans moved forward or were enacted in Manhattan Beach, Calistoga, Santa Maria, Irvine, Arroyo Grande, Fountain Valley, and parts of the Napa Valley region. Delivery services are now banned on Catalina Island. About six new localities are joining the ban list each week. Experts say that cities have been spooked into thinking they only have until March 1 to ban all medical cannabis cultivation, or the state will ram pot farms down localities' throats.

The League of California Cities has been holding webinars for every city attorney in the state on how they can ban any medical cannabis activity. The league will hold a physical "Informational Briefing on Medical Marijuana" — featuring police and attorneys who teach cities how to legally ban all access — on December 11 in San Luis Obispo and in Rancho Cordova on January 13.

"The March 1 deadline has been overblown," said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association (CGA). "It's created a false sense of urgency for a lot of people. ... We're seeing some pretty poorly though-out local policy."

MMRSA has become a windfall for law firms that make money writing medical cannabis bans and billing cities, said Sean Donahoe, a statewide cannabis lobbyist. "The localities right now are over-reacting based on misinformation," he said.

Patient and industry groups are scrambling to counter the league in city halls and county seats. "The fight has moved from the state capitol to the local government," said Bradley.

The CGA held two policy summits for local officials in Nevada City and Santa Cruz in December. The group is drafting model ordinances and providing a local legal framework for future local regulations.

Activist groups are also urging folks to register to vote, join groups like the Brownie Mary Democratic Clubs of California, and show up to council meetings. "The bridge needs to be built," said Allen. "Let them see you. We're not fighting the local government any longer or law enforcement any longer. The war is over if we let it go."

CGA and CCIA membership enrollment has spiked to ten times above normal since MMRSA passed. "I think [MMRSA] was the catalyst. It really kicked things into high gear," said Allen. Winning over local governments "is going to be the most challenging thing we've ever done, and there's nothing we've ever done that's worth more," he added.

Donahoe said that in certain areas of the state, there's a disconnect in terms of where voters and elected leaders are on the topic versus old-guard city staffers — especially the local city attorney, sheriff, or police chief. The easiest thing for uneducated city staffer to do is ban all activity rather than craft local regulations. By contrast, medical cannabis providers are falling over themselves to play by any and all new rules.

In the Bay Area, Eaze medical cannabis delivery and IncrediMeds edibles are touting their compliance with MMRSA rules. "We're saying, 'We can't wait to be licensed,'" said Allen. "There's a lot of enthusiasm to comply. 'What are the rules? We'll follow them if you won't kick down our doors anymore? Great!' It's the social contract at its finest."

Many capital insiders are saying that the March 1 deadline for cities to exert sole regulatory authority over medical cannabis cultivation activity in their jurisdiction will be rolled back. A representative from Assembly Rob Bonta's office told a Santa Cruz crowd earlier this month that "leadership has already agreed that the March 1 deadline shall be deleted," Donahoe said.

"I expect a lot of this freak-out that's happening will mellow out over the next few months," said Allen.

"It's going to be a mixed bag," added Bradley. "As most people start to see it working, they're going to flip [to support access]."

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