Passing Laws is the Easy Part in California


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Here in California, it’s been ages since the voters passed our historic Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, back in 1996. Another mere 19 years later, the capitol finally weighed in on cannabis, by passing the comprehensive Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) in the final hours of last year’s legislative session. Later this year, after a tentative stab at legalization six years ago, the voters should legalize cannabis for recreational adult use here in California. But passing laws, as difficult as that may be, is often the easy part, but the real work is yet to come.

Budget appropriations and regulatory rule-making aren’t really covered on the evening news, brought up in social media or come up in casual conversation while passing a joint around. But the devil is always in the details and this is even more so the case when it comes to government—how will laws be implemented, who will do the implementing and how will it all be paid for are matters of huge consequence. The MMRSA became law on January 1, setting up a pathway for a new state Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, as well as empowering the state Department of Public Health to regulate manufacturing and the state Department of Food and Agriculture to regulate cultivation—but that’s mostly just on paper until actual employees are hired, office space arranged for, furniture and computers are purchased, all of which depends on the Legislature and the Governor agreeing on and passing an annual budget, a process which extends from January to June of every year. The process goes like this: The Governor’s office releases a tentative budget proposal in January, and various subcommittees in the Legislature discuss topics of concern, hearing testimony from agencies and effected communities. The administration listens along, and also waits to see how the economy and tax revenues, then releases a “May revise” to their budget proposal, which gets down to the nitty gritty of specific employee numbers and specific dollar amounts.

Running alongside the Legislature and the Governor’s office are the various state departments and agencies headquartered in Sacramento but with staff throughout our huge state. When a bill is passed, whether through the Legislature or passed by the voters, the details are generally very, very vague and it’s unclear how it’s meant to be implemented. As with any process in our democratic society, stakeholder groups speak up with their opinion as to how the new laws will affect them. To establish some level of transparency and a semblance of order, a “rulemaking” system begins, with input requested on official agency websites, email subscription lists to be signed up for, townhall-style events held throughout the state, rounds of proposed public comment periods, requests for proposals from environmental or other experts, and a general laying out of facts and data by subject matter experts in a very dry fashion, far away from the volatile field of politics and grandstanding elected officials.

Apologies for the remedial government class, but rulemaking and the budget process have intersected in a most fascinating way here in California, as the development of “budget trailer” bills that perform a hybrid function, both modifying existing laws (in this case the recently passed MMRSA) and provide guidance to regulatory implementation while paired up with specific hard dollar amounts for employees and costs. This year’s May revise has specific guidance on medical cannabis implementation that’s a breath of fresh air. After the long, cold winter of ban-a-palooza and the general municipal freakout when it came to licensing medical cannabis operators at the local level, Sacramento has heard the message that more clarity is needed and has made steps to streamline the regulation of medical cannabis here in California, if the Governor’s proposal is passed by the Legislature without being hugely modified. And that would be a great thing, but just the first steps that the cannabis industry and movement should be pushing for, as passing the laws is really the easy part.

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