SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A measure to regulate California's chaotic medical marijuana industry passed a key legislative hurdle on Tuesday, in a move that could lay the groundwork to tax and control recreational use of the drug if it ultimately becomes legal.
U.S. states are increasingly moving to remove curbs on marijuana following landmark voter initiatives in Colorado and Washington state in 2012 that legalized the drug for recreational purposes. Many more states allow medicinal pot.
But the drug remains illegal under federal law, leaving states that have opted for medicinal legalization struggling to control a thriving trade in medical cannabis.
"The current state of chaos around medical marijuana has got to come to an end," said state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat.
If passed, his proposal could "set a template" to regulate recreational use of marijuana by adults, Ammiano said, a move he has long favored.
The bill marks Ammiano's second run at regulating medical marijuana in California, where concern has grown over the lack of rules for the hundreds of street-corner pot dispensaries and delivery services that have sprung up since medical marijuana was legalized 15 years ago.
Besides the pot shops that authorities struggle to regulate, other problems include inappropriate prescribing by unethical doctors, and a violent, "wild West" culture of illegal cannabis farms in the state's forests, Ammiano said.
His bill would make it illegal for doctors to recommend medical marijuana for patients they have not examined, and bar prescriptions by doctors with a financial interest in a pot dispensary.
It would also let the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control enforce laws regulating marijuana and develop plans to tax it beyond the sales tax now levied, while ensuring it is grown and processed safely and in ways safe for the environment.
Supporters, including the city of Oakland, said the bill would bring order and clarity to the market.
But a law enforcement group criticized Ammiano's plan to regulate medical cannabis through Alcoholic Beverage Control.
"There is no little irony in the department of Alcoholic Beverage Control as the administering agency for the medical marijuana trade," the California Narcotic Officers' Association, which opposes legalization, wrote in its testimony.
"We know of no other area of law where an agency charged with regulating recreational substances such as alcohol is also given portfolio over matters alleged to be medical."
California voters rejected a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2010, but a poll last fall by the Public Policy Institute of California showed an increase in support, with 60 percent of likely voters favoring legalization.
Ammiano's plan, which passed the assembly Public Safety committee on Tuesday, is one of two marijuana regulation proposals making their way through the legislature.
The senate version, which would regulate the drug via the state health department instead of the Alcoholic Beverage Control department, has won support from some law enforcement agencies, signaling to many that industry regulations may be coming soon, after years of inaction.
"I feel a lot of momentum behind these two bills," said Don Duncan, California director for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Clarence Fernandez