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California’s Changemaker

“We're trying to get employers away from the idea of discriminating against someone using Cannabis on their own."

If you need to know something about a Cannabis bill in the California legislature, just ask Ellen Komp. Odds are, if she didn’t play a direct role in crafting the bill, she’s carefully tracking it or already preparing an action alert to send to the membership of California NORML.

Established in 1972, California NORML is a separate membership and financial base from the national organization, but one that keeps plenty busy as the only state organization devoted specifically to marijuana reform for consumers. And at the center of it all is Komp, California NORML Deputy Director – first elected to the board of directors back in 1992.

In those days, Komp was all in on hemp, even serving as an editor on the ninth edition of Jack Herer’s legendary book on the subject, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.” In short order, however, the advent of Prop 215 would set Komp on a career course she’s still navigating today. In the wake of voters approving Prop 64, her work now also centers on advocating for improvements to a system few, if any, would mistake for an ideal outcome.

For the most part, that translates to tracking and garnering support for Cannabis-related bills now making their way through the state’s legislature. Speaking with Leaf, Komp highlighted a few of the bills she’s closely following at the moment.

One is SB-311, which is also known as Ryan’s Law.

“That would require hospitals and hospices to allow terminally ill patients to use Cannabis,” Komp explained. “It’s called Ryan’s Law after a man whose son, Ryan, was unable to use Cannabis at the end of his life. His father is pushing this bill. It passed last year, almost unanimously through the legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Newsom over concerns the hospital industry had that they might lose federal funding.”

Such outcomes are a frequent part of the process, where bills are often required to be filed again and again, tweak after tweak, before ultimately having a chance to evolve into law. 

Sometimes, the issue isn’t the language of the bill, but the lawmaker sponsoring it. That’s what happened in the case of AB-1256: an employment rights bill Komp and California NORML are supporting. For the past several years, the bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, but following Bonta’s recent promotion to California Attorney General, Assemblyman Bill Quirk has stepped in to carry AB-1256 forward.

A big goal with that bill is to ban discrimination based on testing for what’s known as inactive THC metabolites, which essentially translates to the leftover THC that sticks around in your system long after the effects have concluded. In California, if an employee tests positive for inactive THC metabolites – which is all a urine or hair test can detect – that is currently still a legally acceptable cause for termination.

For Komp, such a situation seems tantamount to madness.

“We’re trying to get employers away from the idea of discriminating against someone using on their own, off-the-job,” she said. “We don’t discriminate against someone using alcohol off-the-job, right? That was also the number one thing we wanted to fix immediately after Prop 64 passed. I got calls the next day, all day, from people who were being drug tested by their employer and wanted to know if it was OK for them to use Cannabis now. No, sadly they were not OK, even if they had a medical reason. What’s so ironic is that states which later passed their own medical marijuana laws – even less-progressive states like Arkansas – put it right into their law because of what happened with California.”

A third area of focus for Komp and California NORML is the expungement of criminal records.

“I mean, even Joe Biden – who wants to continue arresting people for marijuana – wants to expunge past convictions for marijuana,” she noted. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but that’s where we are.”

While California ostensibly led the way when former San Francisco DA George Gascon announced he’d be initiating automatic record expungements in 2019, Komp counters that well-intentioned promises do not always translate to a clean final product. 

For that reason, she’s essentially positioned California NORML as a watchdog to ensure those expecting an automatic expungement aren’t left short of the finish line.

“I think people are still going to have to take some action,” Komp reasoned, “at least to check that their case has been fully wiped out. There have been all of these announcements about wiping out these records, so people might think they’re good to go when there are actually still several more steps that need to happen before their records are completely fixed. That’s roll-up-your-sleeves kind of work.”

Whatever type of work may be needed, California NORML’s track record shows that they’re always ready to meet any challenge head-on. Komp’s myriad of focuses also confirms that despite recent progress, there is still much, much left to be done. Thankfully, with the likes of California NORML around, we can always count on action to be taken when it comes to protecting Cannabis patients and consumers.

This article was originally published in the issue of all Leaf Magazines.

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