California cultivates, sells and consumes a titanic amount of cannabis—billions and billions of dollars’ worth. For more than a decade, medical-marijuana cardholders have been able to buy cannabis over the counter in licensed dispensaries, who remit taxes to the state and federal governments.
Nothing about this is new or particularly complicated: Business asks government for license, license is granted, sales begin.
And yet, figuring out how to do the same with recreational marijuana retail stores—something four other states have managed to accomplish without too much drama—is, somehow, turning out to be too complex for the world’s seventh-biggest economy.
When a sizable majority of California voters approved Prop. 64 in November and legalized recreational marijuana use and cultivation for adults 21 and over, they also set a date for when retail sales would begin—Jan. 1, 2018. Sometime in between that day and Election Day, legislators, who had already kicked the question of whether weed should be legal or not to voters, would have to come up with a set of rules. Fair enough.
That’s the same time-frame lawmakers in Colorado had to set up the nation’s first legal sale. But according to lawmakers in California, including those for whom marijuana is supposed to be a pet issue, it just isn’t enough time.
“Being blunt, there is no way the state of California can meet all of the deadlines before we go live on January 1, 2018,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, a dad-joke caliber pun-slinging Sonoma County Democrat, told the Sacramento Bee. “We are building the regulatory system for a multibillion dollar industry from scratch.”
Let’s forget for a second that none of what McGuire just said is true.
Even if Colorado—and then Washington, then Oregon and then Alaska—hadn’t provided California with a model to follow, the state in 2015 passed regulations for medical marijuana. And Prop. 64 was specifically modeled after the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in fall 2015.
Baking brownies from a box of ready mix or microwaving a bowl of Easy Mac may prevent you from starving, but it wouldn’t exactly qualify as crafting a gourmet meal “from scratch.” But then again, the bar is already set awfully low—like frozen-burrito level.
Lawmakers like McGuire—who represents a marijuana-growing region, and yet opposed Prop. 64—were on the hook for finalizing a host of details before licenses to grow, transport, test and sell medical cannabis were issued.
And in a year-plus, they haven’t quite gotten around to that—so judging by that precedent, they can’t possibly be expected to get their act together in under a year.
This heel-dragging is being seen all across the country. Lawmakers in Massachusetts want to delay the start of recreational marijuana sales there by as much as two years. It’s common, but it’s confusing, as legislators really have no incentive to delay.
Putting this off costs the state money, as fewer than 30 percent of marijuana businesses actually pay taxes, McGuire told the Bee. And it’s a potential health hazard, as without promulgated state regs, consumers have no guarantee aside from a dispensary or delivery service’s promise that the product they’re smoking has been properly tested and is mold, pest and pesticide-free.
And meanwhile, marijuana sales are happening every day, in stores behaving like normal retail outlets and on the street. There’s a common refrain among elected officials begging for a delay—we must “get it right,” they say. That’s a dishonest dodge, as any regulatory proposal will be contested by somebody, and inevitably fine-tuned and adjusted for years.
It’s almost as if marijuana is something elected officials would rather not deal with.
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