California Medical Marijuana Laws: Rules & Guidelines

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Even among the medical and scientific communities, the medicinal efficacy of marijuana still stirs heated debates. The legal community, however, has approved medical marijuana for legal use in many states. At the time of publication, 33 states have legalized marijuana since California became the first state to mandate the legal use of cannabis in 1996. Since then, California’s laws, rules and guidelines for medical marijuana have undergone numerous fine-tuning iterations, which now allow patients to grow their own plants as well as to purchase cannabis from state-licensed dispensaries.

California Marijuana Laws

In 1996, the Compassionate Use Law (California Code Section 11362.5) was enacted in California following the passage of Proposition 215. This groundbreaking law provided for the legal use of marijuana for seriously ill patients whose physicians recommended cannabis as a treatment for various diseases, illnesses and certain physical conditions.

In 2016, California state law also expanded its marijuana laws with the passage of Proposition 64 (The Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act) to include legal guidelines for personal / recreational use. And by 2018, the final legislation was passed, which made recreational marijuana legal for adults over the age of 21.

Benefits of Medical Marijuana

Peter Grinspoon, M.D., of Harvard Medical School addresses some core issues in the process of legalizing marijuana for medical use. Recognizing that legislators, physicians, researchers and scientists have broadly conflicting opinions on this subject, Grinspoon focuses instead on patient feedback and doctor-patient interaction. From a scientific point of view, Grinspoon notes that there currently are no “rigorous studies and ‘gold standard’ proof of the benefits and risks of medical marijuana.” But he also acknowledges some overarching benefits that scores of patients report after receiving medicinal marijuana treatment for many medical conditions.

Some of these medical conditions include AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine and chronic pain. The primary use of medical marijuana is for pain relief that patients suffer, for example, from HIV, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease. And some medical research supports marijuana’s ability to mitigate the tremors that accompany Parkinson’s disease. Medical marijuana is also used to treat conditions such as weight loss and nausea.

Why Marijuana Is Regulated

Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants, but each is a different variety in the same species of cannabis that’s classified by the scientific name of Cannabis sativa. Because both of these plants are members of the same plant species, they share many of the same botanical characteristics. Both look so similar that many people, even those in law enforcement, can’t always discern which plant is hemp and which is marijuana simply by looking at them. But each plant also has some differences, chiefly in their chemical composition, and it’s these chemical properties that are at the crux of marijuana’s legal regulation.

Chemical Properties of Marijuana

Like many other plants, cannabis plants produce natural chemicals called phytochemicals. Modern science owes many of its medicinal pain relief and cures from plant-produced chemicals, even though most of these chemicals are now synthesized in laboratories. For example, aspirin has its origins in a phytochemical called salicin that’s produced by willow trees (Salix spp.) and certain other plants. And morphine comes from opium, which is a phytochemical that certain poppies (Pavaver spp.) produce.

In a similar vein, cannabis plants also produce phytochemicals that many people use medicinally. One of these is Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive chemical compound that’s more commonly known by its industry acronym – THC. The World Health Organization’s definition of a “psychoactive” substance is a substance that affects mental process when it’s administered or taken. THC produces the “high” that marijuana users experience, which may also impair drivers and influence other physical responses.

Even though hemp plants also produce THC, the concentrations are much less than those produced by marijuana plants. The chemical compound present in larger concentrations in hemp plants is cannabidiol (CBD), which is not classified as a psychoactive substance.

California Marijuana Cultivation Laws

California marijuana laws have a little more latitude for individuals who cultivate plants for medicinal use than for persons who grow plants for personal/recreational use. Regardless of the reason for cultivating plants, individual growers cannot sell the plants (or plant parts) they grow. Only state-certified commercial growers are allowed to sell them. All growers must follow state laws as well as local ordinances, which means a grower in one county may be subject to different laws than a grower, for example, in an adjacent county.

Regulations for Cultivating Medical Marijuana

The word “cultivation” has a broader meaning in the California Code than simply growing and caring for a plant. According to California Code Section 26001, “cultivation” covers a number of plant-related activities, including planting, growing, harvesting, drying and curing cannabis plants. Eligible patients as well as their primary caregivers may cultivate marijuana plants for the benefit of the patient. California Code Section 11362.5 defines a “primary caregiver” as a person the patient chooses “who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety” of the patient.

Medicinal Cannabis Allowable Quantities

California Code Section 11362.77 allows recreational-use marijuana growers to grow up to six plants, but state law allows medicinal-use marijuana growers to maintain up to six mature plants and 12 immature plants. If a physician recommends more than this number of plants to meet a patient’s medical needs, the patient may grow as many plants as his doctor determines is a proper amount.

In addition to the quantities of live plants, eligible patients and their designated caregivers may also possess up to 8 ounces of dried cannabis. The dried plant material is composed of the female flowers that are harvested and dried from mature female plants. The highest concentration of THC is found in the flowers.

California Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

California patients do not have to grow their own marijuana for medicinal use; they can also purchase products from a state-licensed dispensary. Beginning in 2016, after passage of Proposition 64, dispensaries could sell recreational marijuana as well as medicinal marijuana. Even though legal dispensaries are certified by the State of California, local ordinances in some areas may prohibit dispensaries, which means that patients cannot purchase medical marijuana in the city or county where they live.

Medical Marijuana Dispensary Licenses

As commercial retailers, marijuana dispensaries must have licenses issued by the State of California as well as any required local licenses. Division 10 of the California Business and Professions Code (BPC) lists the requirements for state-licensed dispensaries. The state-authorized agencies that issue license can also renew and reinstate licenses, and they have the additional authority to impose disciplinary actions against any non-compliant licensees.

Three Types of Dispensary Licenses

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

  1. A-license. Licensees may cultivate, manufacture, and sell cannabis and cannabis products to adults ages 21 or older.
  2. M-license. Licensees may cultivate, manufacture and sell medicinal cannabis and cannabis products.
  3. Testing laboratory license. Licensees may test or offer tests on cannabis and cannabis products for commercial reasons. Testing laboratories must hold licenses that are issued by the California Bureau of Cannabis Control and accredited by an independent third-party agency not affiliated with the commercial cannabis industry.

California Code Section 26001 defines the “commercial cannabis activity” of licensed retailers as cultivating, possessing, manufacturing, distributing, processing, storing, laboratory testing, packaging, labeling, transporting, delivering, and selling cannabis and cannabis products. “Delivering” includes making commercial transfers to customers and taking technology platform deliveries.

Storefront vs. Non-Storefront Medicinal Retailers

Licensed dispensaries may sell cannabis and cannabis products from a storefront or non-storefront. A storefront dispensary must have a licensed physical location (the premises), and a non-storefront dispensary, which is restricted to delivery-only products, must have a licensed storage facility for storing its cannabis goods. Delivery-only dispensaries cannot sell products from their storage facility.

Both types of dispensaries must adhere to the same business operating hours, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Pacific Time, when selling their products. Additionally, they can only receive shipments from their licensed distributors during these same operating hours. Retailers may legally accept cannabis returns, but the products cannot be re-sold. The retailers must destroy the products or return them to their distributor if the goods are defective.

All cannabis goods for purchase must have packaging and labels that are compliant with the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s regulations. For example, cannabis products can only leave a licensed retailer’s place of business in an opaque exit package. And licensed cannabis retailers can only sell cannabis, cannabis accessories, promotional materials and branded merchandise.

Age for Entering Medical Dispensaries

Patients who are younger than age 18 must have a parent’s consent to use medical marijuana. Only patients who are at least 18 years old and who have a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana may enter a licensed dispensary. If a person does not have a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana, she must be at least 21 years old to enter a personal-use dispensary.

A retailer’s employees are required to verify the age of each customer with a valid proof of identification before allowing a customer to enter the dispensary. If the retail dispensary is a non-storefront business doing deliveries only, the delivery employee must verify the age of each customer with a valid proof of identification before completing the delivery.

California Medical Marijuana ID Cards

Eligible patients are not required by California law to have a medical marijuana identification card (MMIC) before using cannabis at the direction of a physician. The California Department of Public Health notes that participation by patients and primary caregivers in the Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program (MMICP) is entirely voluntary.

There are advantages, however, to having an MMIC. Cardholders are exempt from paying state sales and use taxes for the purchase of medical marijuana. A card also confirms the legality of the holder’s legal right to use medical marijuana, which may be helpful if questioned by law enforcement.

MMIC Application Process

Patients must apply in person for an MMIC at their county health department. Eligible caregivers may also apply for a primary caregiver MMIC, which is not mandatory, by going with the patient to the patient’s county health department. MMIC fees are set by each county, but the statewide cap is $100. MedCal beneficiaries are eligible for a 50 percent MMIC discount, and patients who are indigent may be eligible for a waiver of all fees if they participate in a County Medical Services Program.

Required documents that accompany MMIC applications include a doctor’s recommendation, proof of identity and proof of residency. Patients and caregivers must apply in person because the health department is required to take their picture for the MMIC. When a county health department receives a patient’s application, application fee and required identification documents, the verification process may take up to 30 days. Once the health department approves a patient’s application, the county must issue the patient’s MMIC within five days.

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About the Author

Victoria Lee Blackstone was formerly with Freddie Mac’s mortgage acquisition department, where she funded multi-million-dollar loan pools for primary lending institutions, worked on a mortgage fraud task force and wrote the convertible ARM section of the company’s policies and procedures manual. Currently, Blackstone is a professional writer with expertise in the fields of mortgage, finance, budgeting, tax and law. She is the author of more than 2,000 published works for newspapers, magazines, online publications and individual clients.