It surely looked like reefer madness was back the other day, when the state began advertising for a new medical marijuana czar. The timing of the listing, coming while a dozen proposed ballot initiatives to legalize recreational pot are pending, appeared to suggest an assumption by Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration that at least one will pass.
The new pot czar, to be paid between $115,000 and $128,000 annually, would actually only be in charge of medical marijuana – to start with. (Two more putative ballot measures now authorized to seek voter signatures would make refinements to the 1996 Proposition 215, which legalized medipot.) The wide presumption is that if and when recreational marijuana is legalized, it will be regulated by the same czar as medipot, working under the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs.
So even while the marijuana industry and its millions of customers can’t seem to decide which measure to back, the choice of their future chief regulator is almost upon us.
That person will supposedly be hired by the end of January, and then get one year to organize a new agency that will label all medical marijuana products, license growers and dispensaries around the state and weed out mavericks who refuse to comply with the state’s new regulations, passed by legislators last summer and then signed into law by Brown.
“What we’re seeing is a dramatic shift in professionalism within the cannabis industry and a major component is more vigorous, resilient and intelligent regulation,” said Paul Warshaw, head of GreenRush, a medipot business with 125 associated dispensaries offering 5,000 pot-related products.
Colleague Seth Yakatan, CEO of Kalytera, a company now developing marijuana-derived cannabidiol products it hopes will be used against osteoporosis and other health problems, sees a major shift in mindset.
“California’s medical marijuana industry has gained a reputation as being loosely regulated, often to the detriment of patients and business owners,” he said. “If this budding industry is to be taken seriously, California’s new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation will need to be properly … managed.”
But establishment of that agency also implies the Brown administration wants to be ready for full legalization, which could come as early as one year from now, depending on which, if any, currently proposed ballot measure should pass.
“Whoever takes the job will probably have a target on their head,” predicted Dale Sky Jones, president of Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, to a reporter. A leading source of information on pot, Oaksterdam also advises the states of Washington and Colorado, which already have legalized recreational pot.
The new medipot boss will have to be careful never to even imply that he or she would like to see recreational marijuana legalized in California. That would bring ire from cannabis opponents, who cite federal studies indicating the weed can demotivate youthful users, in addition to damaging the brains of some young people.
While polls indicate opponents now number only about 40 percent in California, that figure will no doubt grow if pot critics mount a serious campaign against whatever initiative eventually qualifies for next fall’s ballot.
So it might be best if Brown and his aides make it clear their job posting is merely a requirement of new laws already on the books, and not an anticipation or endorsement of any or all of the putative pot initiatives.
One thing for sure: Given the fact that medical marijuana is already an almost $4 billion business in California, and rates as the state’s most lucrative crop by a margin of more than $1 billion over second-place grapes, legalizing random pot growing and use will likely make pot a dominant product, perhaps producing as much revenue as all other crops combined.
This would be an enormous change, possibly causing some present growers of everything from grapes to nuts, citrus and cotton to change signals and plant marijuana instead. The impact of that on American diets and food prices could be enormous.
So it behooves Brown to avoid reefer madness and stay as far from endorsing a pot proposition as he can.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.