.Only Just Begun

POT PEN PAL: California’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, recently sent letters to four U.S. Attorneys telling them to stop targeting the medical cannabis collectives. aSILVA via Flickr

SINCE THE medical cannabis industry exploded in 2008, California has become the Wild West of weed. “420 doctors” charging as little as $20 for 10-minute sit-down exams made it easy for almost anyone to score a recommendation to grow their own pot or purchase it from any of the hundreds of storefront dispensaries across the state. Dispensaries and delivery services popped up in communities around California, with NPR recently reporting that some communities have more cannabis dispensaries than Starbucks.

But 2011 featured major setbacks for the state’s billion-dollar industry. With San Jose’s own cannabis regulations on hold until the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters verifies signatures for a petition to repeal those regulations, here’s a look where medical cannabis in California now stands, and what issues will be tackled as we roll into 2012.

The big news is the federal crackdown on dispensaries operating too close to schools and parks. In October, four U.S. attorneys in California announced they would invoke asset forfeiture laws to threaten landlords who rent to cannabis providers. Landlords in San Francisco and San Diego have reported receiving letters, but hundreds of dispensaries across the state have voluntarily shut down out of fear of federal action. (It looks like California isn’t the only state facing federal crackdown. Colorado, which has a more regulated yet still vibrant cannabis industry, could see federal action in the next few months.)

Then, in November, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that California’s medical marijuana laws do not prevent cities from banning pot clubs. The case stemmed from Inland Empire Patient’s Health and Wellness Center appealing a ban in Riverside. Cities locked in expensive legal battles with dispensaries applauded the ruling, which should make it easier for communities to shut down clubs. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed told Metro after the ruling that the city would consider a ban on all dispensaries should city leaders and cannabis advocates be unable to resolve the dispute on the regulations.

But some Californians hope that tightening the medical marijuana laws might help avert a total industry blackout. Pro-pot group Americans for Safe Access and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents a growing number of cannabis workers across the country, joined forces to propose a 2012 ballot initiative that would create a state body to license, tax and regulate the production, processing and distribution of medical cannabis.

And last week, Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to Senate President Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez urging them to clarify the state’s existing medical cannabis laws. Harris also sent a letter to the four U.S. attorneys who announced the October crackdown to back off and instead focus on human trafficking and international gangs.

One thing is certain: 2012 promises to be the most uncertain year for the industry yet.

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