Reporting from San Francisco -- When Matt Vaughn was pulled over for speeding on Interstate 5 in Northern California early on a Sunday morning, he had a bag of marijuana on the passenger seat.
The California Highway Patrol officer smelled the weed, searched the car, took the marijuana and pipe and gave Vaughn a sobriety test, which he passed. An angry Vaughn showed the officer his doctor's recommendation to use marijuana for glaucoma. The officer was unimpressed.
"He said, in Glenn County, they don't recognize those kinds of things," said Vaughn, 55, who has a long ponytail, mustache and beard. "He was not very friendly about it."
The 2005 incident cost Vaughn a speeding ticket, his 1 1/4 ounce of pot and his driver's license -- and nine months of fighting the California Department of Motor Vehicles -- before he prevailed.
As a result of that and other encounters involving medical marijuana, an advocacy group has sued the DMV, asking for a written policy that says medical marijuana should be treated the same as prescription drugs.
The suit contends that the DMV has a pattern of investigating and suspending the driver's licenses of people who use pot on the recommendation of their doctors.
"It happens a disturbing amount," said Joseph D. Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, which promotes legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes and research.
Elford said his Oakland-based group has received complaints about the DMV from patients in several Northern and Central California counties, though Elford and others involved in the issue said they were unaware of any Southern California cases.
The DMV can obtain medical information about someone if an investigation is launched into the person's fitness to drive.
In Vaughn's case, the CHP officer sent the DMV a report about Vaughn, along with a medical journal article saying marijuana was not the choice drug for treating glaucoma.
In another case, Rose Johnson, 53, the plaintiff named in the pending suit, used medical marijuana for back and neck injuries and lost her license after a DMV worker referred her for an investigation.
The worker had noted that Johnson had difficulty moving when she went in to renew her driver's license. Despite her perfect driving record, the DMV cited the Merced woman's marijuana use last year in revoking her license, the suit said.
Elford said the DMV also learns of medical marijuana patients from law enforcement officers who ask drivers if they have used drugs in the 24 hours before a traffic stop.
Medical marijuana users usually answer truthfully, thinking they are protected by law, Elford said. He added that he does not advise them to lie because defrauding a police officer is a misdemeanor in California.
State officials said in interviews that it is not their policy to take away licenses from marijuana patients.
DMV spokesman Armando Botello declined to comment on the lawsuit and said the office does not keep statistics on the number of licenses yanked as a result of medical marijuana. But he indicated the instances were probably isolated.
Although medicinal weed is not automatic grounds for revoking a license, conditions that impair safe driving, including "poor judgment, aggressive behavior, impaired decision making, slowed motor functions, impaired coordination . . . and drowsiness" could result in license removal, he said.
During a DMV investigation, the driver's doctor is asked to fill out a five-page questionnaire about the patient's medical condition and drug use.
Jaime Coffee, a spokeswoman for the CHP, said its policy is to comply with the state medical marijuana law, a policy that Americans for Safe Access won in an earlier suit. Officers are instructed not to confiscate marijuana from an unimpaired driver with a valid doctor's recommendation, Coffee said. She speculated that Vaughn's marijuana might have been confiscated because he did not have his license with him.
Vaughn, who operates a medical marijuana collective out of his home, said he had left the license in another pair of pants, had not smoked in several hours and was admittedly grouchy.
"I actually am very aggressive when I am not smoking," he said.
In fact, he was just about to pull off the freeway to smoke and rest on his long drive from Placerville to Vancouver, Wash., to visit family, he said.
Vaughn said he did not yell at the officer, "but I am able to push their buttons." The officer called for backup, and two other CHP cars arrived. After he was cited, Vaughn went home for more marijuana for his journey.
Vaughn does not work outside the marijuana collective.
"Essentially what I make is what I smoke, which is quite a bit," he said. "Generally my wife is the regular person with jobs and insurance."
Not even marijuana advocates recommend driving under pot's influence. California has convicted drivers of being under the influence of marijuana when they failed field sobriety tests, Elford said.
Studies on the effects of marijuana on driving have reached varying conclusions. Some found that experienced users are likely to compensate for their deteriorated state by being especially cautious -- but are prone to getting lost -- while others showed significant debilitating effects from THC, the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.
Vaughn said he drives well when he smokes but conceded that cannabis affects people differently.
After nine months of appealing the suspension of his license, Vaughn contacted Elford, who filed suit. Before trial, the DMV agreed to return his license and his marijuana and pipe. Vaughn said his DMV record had incorrectly shown a conviction for driving under the influence.
"How it got there was never discerned," he said.
By Maura Dolan
February 16, 2009