LA Times editorial: With limited access, is marijuana really legal in California?

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California law allows adults to buy marijuana. It allows licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers, and it says specifically that cities and counties cannot prevent delivery services from traveling on public roads. Yet even though cities can’t stop deliveries traveling through their jurisdiction, many cities currently ban deliveries to their jurisdiction.

That means that unlike deliveries of virtually every other legal, adult-use product — including alcohol and cigarettes, which can be ordered over the internet in California — marijuana deliveries are barred.

The practical effect is that residents in some places have little to no access to legal medical or recreational cannabis products because of local regulations — which seems contrary to the intent of Proposition 64. Roughly half of Californians live in cities or counties that prohibit marijuana stores and delivery services form opening in their jurisdictions. An analysis by the Sacramento Bee earlier this year found residents in 40 percent of the state had to drive 60 miles or more to find a licensed dispensary to buy legal marijuana — medical or recreational.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that residents in those so-called pot deserts can’t get their hands on marijuana. They just can’t get legal cannabis products that are regulated and taxed. No wonder California’s ample black market is still thriving. At last count, the state has sent more than 2,500 cease-and-desist letters to illegal pot businesses.

Now California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control wants to clarify the law. Draft regulations released by the agency last month would make it clear that marijuana businesses may deliver to any private address in the state — regardless of whether the city or county permits actual brick-and-mortar pot shops in the jurisdiction.

Delivery employees would still need to confirm the identity and age of the buyer, and the delivery would have to be made to a private physical address — no pot drops on public property would be allowed. The intent is to ensure that adults in California have access to legal marijuana no matter where they live.

The League of California Cities and other groups oppose the proposed regulations, arguing that Proposition 64 gave local governments the right to ban commercial cannabis activity. That’s true, up to a point. Cities can — and should — be able to decide whether they want to take on the responsibility of permitting pot shops, marijuana farms and other cannabis businesses within their boundaries. Many cities have taken a wait-and-see approach, given the complexities and potential enforcement headaches with licensing a new industry.

But why should a city be able to prohibit an individual from buying a legal product from a licensed business that is located outside their boundaries? We don’t give cities the ability to ban deliveries by other permitted businesses and other legal products. And at what point do local regulations supersede the intent of Proposition 64, which was to allow adults to buy legal marijuana? (After all, the law allows individuals to grow their own marijuana even in cities that ban pot shops and other cannabis businesses. And it allows them to bring marijuana in from other parts of the state. So why ban deliveries?)

Of course, marijuana is different from other products and California is still navigating the intricacies of legalizing a drug that is prohibited under federal law. So, yes, it’s understandable that some cities and counties want to move extra cautiously on marijuana regulations.

The regulations themselves are a work in progress, too. There is debate over how much marijuana a delivery employee may carry — the proposed limit is $10,000 worth of product — and whether that poses a public safety risk of theft. There’s also concern over whether the delivery rule would allow businesses to get around local rules on labor practices and taxes. Those are legitimate issues that need to be ironed out.

The problem, however, is that too much caution and too many bans on commercial sales undermine one of the key goals of legalization, which was to transform the uncontrolled black market for marijuana into a legal, regulated market for adults. The more California cities prohibit legitimate marijuana businesses, the more likely medical and recreational pot consumers will rely on unlicensed sellers. That’s the reality of the marketplace.

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