By Sean Donahoe
Cannabis laws in California may soon change—and I’m not talking about the 2016 statewide measure. Every day in our state Capitol, 120 legislators, thousands of staffers, and many more consultants and lobbyists have conversations and make decisions that will affect medical cannabis consumers across the state.
Most people in the cannabis policy reform movement expect a statewide ballot measure next year, which will finally allow us to join the four other states that have legalized retail sales of cannabis for adults. Many activists also know that the federal rescheduling of cannabis, defunding of the DEA, and other federal changes are being worked on in Washington DC. But I am always shocked to learn that many activists either do not know or do not care who their elected state assembly member or senators are, despite the crucial role that our state legislature plays in influencing the commerce, medicine, public safety, education, transportation, taxation and economic development that forms the social environment around each and every one of us.
I’ve said it before in this column, but it bears repeating: politics matters. It matters to us patients and consumers of cannabis even more this year as there will be as many as 10 state bills that will be decided upon by legislators and, if passed, signed (or not) by Governor Jerry Brown. These bills range from the broad to the specific, from comprehensively regulating medical cannabis, to regulating cultivation practices, to regulating e-cigarettes, to regulating manufacturing of cannabis extracts, to providing greater access to medical cannabis patients. Our legislative bodies will be considering these issues in the context of bills brought forward by specific bill authors, who come from the Emerald Triangle, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Marin and the East Bay. These legislators have listened to stakeholders in their districts and in Sacramento and have crafted solutions for problems that they believe need addressing. Those stakeholders have not often been patients nor are enthusiasts of cannabis policy reform, but increasingly our voice and our wishes being heard in the state Capitol.
After the bills are introduced, first-up are policy committee hearings, where a small set of fellow legislators listen to witnesses and debate the particular workings of each bill. Oftentimes bills are stopped cold at this point, as the light of day reveals half-baked solutions for problems that may or may not exist. Most times, however, legislators and witnesses may call for changes to particulars of the bill. Amendments are then made to the bill as it passes along to the next committee hearings. Yes, sometimes crafting, tweaking, and passing legislation can be quite a process, bewildering to outsiders but ultimately there is logic here, a system that can be understood. It is of course a human system and subject to the whims of legislators’ egos, the posturing of law enforcement opposition, and the roles that money and organizations play within our political system. I believe that the cannabis industry and movement should neither hate the player nor hate the game, but engage in the state legislative process through active involvement in organizations and individuals that are already engaged in the Capitol. Track bills online, stream hearings from the comfort of your couch, make a few phone calls, or write a few emails. You’ll learn something for sure, you may be the difference on a particular vote, and you’ll be glad that you were involved.
Sean Donahoe was founding staff for the California Cannabis Industry Association, serves on the board of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, and the City of Oakland’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Learn more about 2016 efforts at ReformCA.com.