Weed Wars

Dispatches from the California Marijuana Front

June 8, 2010
Two Democratic marijuana bills advance, divide constituencies

Democratic lawmaker Mark Leno of San Francisco wants to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana an infraction and take it out of the reach of the criminal courts.

Democratic lawmaker Joan Buchanan of Alamo wants to ban medical marijuana dispensaries from operating near schools.

Their two bills, stirring different constituencies in the marijuana debate, each passed their respective houses and will now move forward in the Legislature.

Leno's bill, Senate Bill 1449, cleared the Senate and is now headed to the Assembly -- with cheers from marijuana activists and some jeers from Law enforcement.

Buchanan's bill, Assembly Bill 2650, cleared the Assembly and is now headed to the Senate - with strong support of police groups and school administrators and skepticism from marijuana advocates.

Leno's bill would stop simple marijuana possession from being considered a misdemeanor under the law. People stopped with small amounts of pot already face a penalty akin to an infraction - a fine of $100 - but must go to court as misdemeanor defendants.

Leno argues that passage of SB 1449 would unclog California's courts and potentially stop tens of thousands of marijuana arrests. But opponent John Lovell, a lobbyist for state narcotics offices and police associations, says the bill would dry up incentives for drug treatment - often negotiated in court plea bargains.

Aaron Smith, state policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group supporting marijuana legalization, said advocates are "are quite hopeful" Leno's bill will pass. He considers it a natural stepping stone to the November ballot initiative to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use.

But the Marijuana Policy Project and other advocacy groups are wary of Buchanan's bill.

Originally, Buchanan had sought to ban dispensaries within 1,000 feet of all schools. But pot advocates pointed out that would even ban pot shops from near Oaksterdam University, Oakland's famed marijuana trade academy.

The bill was amended to cut the distance to 600 feet and specify that it apply to K-12 schools.

Smith argues that local governments are already imposing restrictions under local zoning laws for locating pot shops. "The reality is that there are a lot of issues that the Legislature needs to deal with concerning medical marijuana," he said. "This is not one of them."

He charged that the Buchanan bill amounts to little more than "fiddling in the margins" at the behest of law enforcement groups opposed to medical marijuana.

Buchanan says her bill is a "common sense measure" supported by schools and "sought by law enforcement."

She argues for the legislation in an Assembly video below.

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