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What’s Next for MMJ in Cal.?

With legalization efforts on hold, Californians will have to wait until 2016 to decide whether they want to regulate marijuana and make it available to all adults over 21.

That leaves many in the cannabis community wondering what happens in the meantime. California’s medical marijuana system is in near-chaos, under siege by local governments and federal law enforcement, and the future looks murky at best.

leaf light backLegalization could have solved that problem and put MMJ on more stable footing. But now patients, advocates and officials are left to stumble their way through a broken system no one seems ready to fix.

Voters in California approved medical weed in 1996 when they passed the Compassionate Use Act. The state was the first in the nation to adopt MMJ. Seven years later, the legislature passed a law establishing a patient registry and putting several new rules in place.

Following that legislation, medical pot dispensaries began to pop up across the state in increasing numbers, selling weed to patients and, many argue, to regular Californians with no medical problems.

Even marijuana proponents agree there is too little regulation of the industry. Pot shops have crowded into neighborhoods whose residents have complained to their local governments, and those governments, in turn, have sought to restrict or ban the dispensaries.

Last year, the state Supreme Court sided with these communities and declared they have the legal right to bar pot shops within their municipal limits. More than 200 cities, counties and towns have done so, while a smaller number have tightened the rules that govern the stores. The remaining municipalities still rely on state law, which provides minimal regulation.

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Some communities are going a step further and banning cultivation, even though residents are allowed to grow weed under the Compassionate Use Act. Fresno County and the City of Live Oak have prohibited all grows, inside and out, while several other localities have barred outdoor cultivation.

Patient advocates have sued to overturn the worst of the grow bans. The issue will likely be decided by the state Supreme Court.

Pot proponents and health activists have tried to push new industry regulations through the legislature in recent years, all to no effect That’s largely because the state’s powerful police lobby, which fears such regulations would legitimize medical weed, has opposed them.

The lack of regulations, and the resulting squeeze from local governments, is hardly the only problem facing MMJ between now and 2016. The industry also faces the looming threat of federal prosecution.

Last August the Justice Department announced federal agencies wouldn’t interfere with states that legalize weed, or with businesses that provide it, as long as certain federal priorities – such as keeping cannabis away from kids – are enforced.Medical marijuana is legal in 21 states, including California, while recreational pot is legal in Colorado and Washington State. But all pot is illegal under federal law.

But that hasn’t stopped federal prosecutors and the DEA from continuing their campaigns against growers, processors and dispensaries across the state. In the Bay Area, for example, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag is continuing cases against pot shops in and around Oakland despite the announcement from Justice and pressure from several members of Congress.

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Both the threat of municipal bans and the threat of federal interference would likely be removed if Californians were to legalize cannabis outright.

Recreational weed stores would become commonplace, making dispensary issues moot. And the federal government would lose its key rationale for targeting California while leaving Colorado and Washington alone: the dysfunction in California’s MMJ system. The Golden State would be starting over with a new and, presumably, better system.

For the time being, those in the medical marijuana industry will have to hope the winds blow in their favor until 2016. If recent history is any judge, though, that may be a pipe dream.

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