California Medical Marijuana Laws: Uses, Regulations & Card Rules

A cannabis dispensary sign with a large marijuana leaf on it.
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When California legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, it started a ripple effect, with other states gradually following suit. As of 2019, 33 states had joined the ranks of states where medical marijuana is legal. Medical marijuana laws include individual and commercial growers as well as retail sales through dispensaries. Although cannabis cultivation for recreational use is also legal in California, personal-use laws are different from medicinal-use laws.

California Medical Marijuana Legislative Origin

The groundbreaking legislation that ushered in California’s legalized marijuana use was the 1996 Compassionate Use Law (California Code Section 11362.5), which was enacted after the passage of Proposition 215. This law ensures that critically ill patients are able to use marijuana for medicinal purposes on the recommendation of their physicians. Examples of critical medical conditions include cancer, AIDS, chronic pain, glaucoma, arthritis and migraine.

Read More: California Medical Marijuana Laws: Rules & Guidelines

Why Medicinal Marijuana Is Regulated

The marijuana plant is one type of cannabis plant (hemp is another type). Each type is a different variety of Cannabis sativa, which is the botanical name for all plants in this same species. All plants within the same species share certain physical and physiological similarities, but they also have unique differences. One of the primary differences between marijuana and hemp is their chemical composition. And it’s these chemical properties that prompt legislators to regulate the use of certain plants.

Chemical Properties of Marijuana

The marijuana plant, like other plant species, produces chemical compounds called phytochemicals. Some phytochemicals, called primary metabolites, are found in all plants to meet basic plant functions such as the manufacture of sugars to feed the plant. Other phytochemicals, called secondary metabolites, are only found in certain plants. One of the phytochemicals that marijuana produces is a phytocannabinoid called Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, simply shortened to an industry-recognized acronym – THC.

This peek behind the scientific biology of the marijuana plant uncovers the reason why marijuana is regulated as a certain type of drug. The THC that cannabis plants produce is classified as a psychoactive substance. The World Health Organization defines a “psychoactive substance” as one that affects mental processes when it is taken or administered. The resulting “high” from marijuana use, which may affect driving and other physical responses, is a result of the plant’s concentration of THC.

Although the hemp plant also produces THC, it produces it in much smaller quantities than the marijuana plant. Cannabidiol (CBD), which the hemp plant produces in larger quantities, is not classified as a psychoactive, so CBD regulation takes a different path than marijuana regulation.

Uses for Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana has many legal uses at physician recommendations. Dr. Peter Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School notes that even though there are currently no “rigorous studies and ‘gold standard’ proof of the benefits and risks of medical marijuana,” its effective use is hailed by many patients as well as some preliminary studies.

Pain relief is chief among medical marijuana’s uses. Although it’s not strong enough to treat severe pain that accompanies surgery or broken bones, marijuana may be an effective treatment for the chronic pain that results from numerous medical conditions. Some of these conditions include the pain from multiple sclerosis, HIV and Crohn’s disease.

Medical marijuana may be used for successful treatment of chronic pain from endometriosis, fibromyalgia and interstitial cystitis. Some research touts its ability to lessen the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. Medical marijuana is also used as a treatment for glaucoma, nausea and weight loss.

California Cannabis Cultivation

Although adult use and cultivation of personal/recreational and medical marijuana are legal in California, the regulations for personal-use cultivation are different from those for medicinal use. Individuals who cultivate marijuana, whether for personal or medical use, cannot sell their marijuana, which is only legal for California-licensed commercial growers.

Regulations for Cultivating Medicinal-Use Marijuana

California Code Section 26001 defines “cultivation” to include any activity such as planting, growing, harvesting, drying and curing cannabis plants. California law allows patients as well as their primary caregivers to grow marijuana plants for medical reasons as approved by a physician. According to Code Section 11362.5, a “primary caregiver” is the person chosen by a patient “who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety” of the patient.

Patients who are under the age of 21 can also legally use medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation, but patients who are under the age of 18 must obtain a parent’s consent.

Medical Marijuana Plant Limits

Individuals who cultivate marijuana for personal use may grow no more than six plants, but eligible individuals who grow marijuana for medical reasons may grow up to six plants or 12 immature plants, according to California Code Section 11362.77. These patients and their eligible caregivers may also possess up to 8 ounces of dried cannabis, consisting of the dried flowers from processed mature female flowers. The flowers contain the highest concentration of THC. If a physician determines that a patient’s medical need exceeds the allowable plant limit, the patient may grow and possess an amount of marijuana that meets his needs.

California Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Medicinal-use marijuana patients may also purchase cannabis and cannabis products from dispensaries. With the passage of Proposition 64 (The Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act) in 2016, state-licensed dispensaries are allowed to sell medical and/or recreational marijuana, if they have the proper medical-use licensing. Dispensaries are also regulated by local ordinances, which vary in different locations across California, which means that some patients may not be able to purchase medical marijuana from a dispensary in the city or county where they live.

Dispensary Licensing for Medical Marijuana

Marijuana dispensaries are commercial retailers, which must be licensed by the State of California. Some dispensaries must also hold local licenses, depending on the ordinances where they are located. The state regulations, provisions and definitions for dispensaries are delineated in Division 10 of the California Business and Professions Code (BPC). State-authorized licensing agencies can issue, renew and reinstate licenses as well as to take disciplinary action against licensees.

California issues these three types of dispensary licenses, which regulate commercial cannabis activity:

  1. A-license. Allows licensees to cultivate, manufacture and sell cannabis and cannabis products to adults, age 21 or older.
  2. M-license. Allows licensees to cultivate, manufacture and sell medicinal cannabis and cannabis products.
  3. Testing laboratory license. Allows licensees to perform or offer tests on cannabis and cannabis products for commercial reasons. Each testing laboratory must be licensed and accredited by an independent third-party agency, which is not affiliated with the commercial cannabis industry.

California “Commercial Cannabis Activity” Definition

As a licensed retailer, dispensaries conduct “commercial cannabis activity” by cultivating, possessing, manufacturing, distributing, processing, storing, laboratory testing, packaging, labeling, transporting and delivering cannabis products. Retailers may deliver cannabis products by making commercial transfers to customers as well as making technology platform deliveries.

Storefront vs. Non-Storefront Medicinal Retailers

Medical marijuana patients may purchase cannabis products from licensed storefront and non-storefront cannabis retailers. Both types of dispensaries follow the same regulations for operating hours, which are 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Pacific Time, and this daily window of time also represents the legal time frame during which retailers can receive their shipments from licensed distributors.

Storefront retailers must have a licensed physical location from which they sell cannabis products, and they can also deliver their products. Non-storefront retailers are restricted to delivery-only shipments of products, but they must also have a licensed storage facility, from which they cannot sell to the public.

Dispensaries are only allowed to sell cannabis goods that are packaging- and label-compliant with the California Bureau of Cannabis Control regulations. An example of packaging compliance is that cannabis goods must leave the licensed retailer’s location in an opaque exit package. Other than cannabis and cannabis accessories, dispensaries can only sell their promotional materials and branded merchandise. Retailers legally can accept product returns, but they cannot resell the returned products. Instead, they must destroy them or return them to their distributor if the products are defective.

Age to Access Medicinal Dispensaries

Although persons must be at least 21 years of age to access personal-use marijuana retailers, persons at least 18 years of age can access medicinal-use dispensaries if they have a physician’s recommendation. The licensed retailer’s employees must verify each customer’s age with a valid proof of identification before allowing the customer to enter the premises. If a retailer is operating a non-storefront delivery business, the delivery employee must confirm each customer’s valid proof of identification before completing delivery.

Records Required of Cannabis Retailers

Whether a commercial cannabis licensee operates a storefront or a non-storefront, he must keep certain records for seven years, making them available to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control upon request:

  • Financial records.
  • Personnel records.
  • Training records.
  • Contracts.
  • Permits.
  • Security records.
  • Destruction records.
  • Data entered into track-and-trace.
  • Accurate records of all sales for the seven-year period.

California Medical Marijuana Card Rules

Under California Code Section 11362.5 (the Compassionate Use Act), an eligible patient may legally use medical marijuana without having a medical marijuana identification card (MMIC), issued through the California Department of Public Health’s Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program (MMICP). As the California Department of Public Health notes, participation by patients and their primary caregivers in the MMICP is voluntary. But there are advantages to having an MMIC, such as an exemption from paying state sales and use taxes for patients who have valid MMICs to purchase medical marijuana.

Patients can apply for an MMIC in person at their county health department. Two exceptions are Colusa and Sutter counties, which do not issue MMICs. Eligible caregivers can apply for a primary caregiver MMIC by accompanying the patient to the health department in the county where the patient resides. Like the patient’s MMIC, a primary caregiver is not required to have an MMIC.

Each county sets its own fee for MMICs, but the amount cannot exceed $100. Medi-Cal beneficiaries receive a 50 percent discount, and indigent patients may receive a waiver of all fees if they are eligible for and participate in the County Medical Services Program.

Being Approved for Marijuana Card

Patients must submit any required documents with their application for an MMIC card, which typically include a doctor’s recommendation, proof of identity (such as a driver’s license) and proof of residency (such as a utility bill). MMICs are photo ID cards, so applicants will have their photo taken when they apply for a card. After completing the application, submitting the required documents, having a photo taken and paying the application fee, the county may take up to 30 days to verify the application.

If an application is approved, the county program must issue the patient’s MMIC card within five days. Each MMIC is valid for one year. Caregiver MMICs expire on the date that the patient’s MMIC card expires, even if the caregiver’s card is less than a year old. The MMIC renewal process is the same as the original application process.

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