California passes bills to regulate marijuana cultivation

California Governor Jerry Brown.  Image: Ohad Ben-Yoseph.

California Governor Jerry Brown.  Image: Ohad Ben-Yoseph.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, when the state passed Proposition 215 establishing the Compassionate Use Act.  It took almost 20 years, but legislators finally took steps to create regulations for the marijuana industry.  Over the weekend three bills - AB 243, AB 266, and SB 643 - were signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.  Of these, AB 243 is the most significant in my view, as it finally creates a regulatory framework for marijuana cultivation, the first step in the supply chain that is often overlooked.  The bill would empower several agencies, including the Department of Food and Agriculture, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the State Water Resources Control Board, to develop regulations that would minimize the environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation while encouraging farmers to participate in the regulatory process instead of remaining in the shadows.

That last part is important - by some counts there are around 50,000 marijuana farms in California, and many of them are adept at clandestine agriculture.  Alissa Walker, writing for Gizmodo, wrote a really nice article this week pushing back on the "weed is sucking rivers dry" narrative.  It's worth a read.  She also quotes me saying that the job isn't done yet: regulators still have to develop the regulations and get farmers to participate:

[T]here’s another risk for suddenly applying regulations to what has thrived as an essentially black market industry for decades, according to a study by Ryan Stoa, a Senior Scholar at Florida International University who specializes in environmental and natural resources law.

He spent the last few months interviewing cultivators and scientists throughout the Emerald Triangle and believes that some regulatory water rights issues still need to be worked out—especially because so much of the state’s meager rain falls in those northern counties where pot cultivation is expanding. “If you take a really heavy-handed approach to regulation, people will stay on the black market,” he says. “Regulators need to find that delicate balance between regulations that protect the environment while providing incentives for farmers to participate.”

It will be fascinating to watch California set up these environmentally-conscious cultivation regulations.  Even states that have legalized recreational marijuana use (like Colorado or Washington) have done very little to address cultivation, much less the environmental impacts of it.  California, it seems, is giving it a shot.