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    NEW LAWS/2004 - POT MEASURE STUCK AT STARTING LINE

    A program to issue medical ID cards and clarify parts of Prop. 215
    lacks startup funds.

    Next Thursday was supposed to be a big day for medical marijuana
    users.

    That's the day Californians with AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, multiple
    sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic pain and other ailments could begin
    getting state-issued identification cards -- thus freeing them from
    jail time as they debate their medical need with cops.

    That won't happen.

    State officials charged with running the program say they don't have
    enough money to get it going.

    "This is a fee-based program, but we need startup funding," said Lea
    Brooks, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services. "We
    have a very tight budget."

    The author of the legislation aimed at augmenting Proposition 215 said
    he was "astonished" and "angry."

    "Departments are there to carry out the law -- not (flout) it," said
    Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara.

    Under the law, SB 420, the state cards would replace other cards
    authorized in some counties. Advocates say a state system would be a
    win-win for those in need and for cops and courts -- freeing criminal
    justice officials from having to separate legitimate patients from
    lawbreakers. The state law would also create greater uniformity.

    Even though Proposition 215 passed in 1996, the federal government
    continues to enforce federal marijuana laws in California. Court
    decisions have backed the state law, but the conflict continues.

    Vasconcellos said he would be surprised if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
    -- who supported Proposition 215 -- knows what the health department
    is up to.

    The governor's press office said it is still checking into the
    matter.

    "This administration will review the statute and implementation plan,"
    said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Ashley Snee, reading a prepared statement.

    She would not speculate on when the law might be implemented.

    In the absence of state-issued cards, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers'
    Cooperative is continuing to issue its own cards. On a recent midweek
    day, clients from Sacramento, Glendale, Calaveras and Oakland all
    filed through to apply for or renew their cards.

    Statewide, 23,000 Californians carry cooperative ID cards. An
    additional 20 to 25 new cards are issued eac
    h day after cooperative
    staff members review the doctor's note for each applicant, call the
    doctor and check the physician's standing with the state medical board.

    Under the stalled new law, county health departments were to begin
    issuing state cards on Jan. 1.

    The law also imposes legal limits on marijuana possession. Patients or
    primary caregivers may possess no more than 8 ounces of dried
    marijuana. Additionally, they may maintain no more than six mature and
    12 immature marijuana plants per qualified patient. Higher limits are
    possible, if set by local authorities or if patients can prove a
    greater medical need.

    But those limits won't go into effect until the ID card portion
    becomes reality.

    Brooks said the state health department would need four people working
    full time and $470,000 to get the program on its feet.

    Once running, the program would support itself through fees collected
    from cardholders.

    The 389-word Proposition 215 includes no language spelling out how
    much marijuana may be carried, grown, sold or consumed.

    As a result -- and in the absence of a state law -- local officials
    have been forced to set their own legal limits. Courts also have
    played a major role sorting out what's legal.

    In Humboldt County, the district attorney's guidelines say authorized
    medical marijuana users may possess 3 pounds of dried marijuana.

    "The law needed to be clarified for a long time," Humboldt County
    Sheriff Gary Philp said in a phone interview. "It makes it easier for
    law enforcement and everyone involved to have some clarity."

    Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland cooperative, said the
    new law will do the most good in rural California, where "patients are
    spending nights in jail" because law enforcement officers disregard
    the mandate of Proposition 215.

    A blurb on the Drug Policy Alliance Web site says the law "seeks to
    protect patients from cowboy cops."

    While many agree that the legislation represents a major compromise
    between law enforcement officials and medical marijuana advocates,
    others aren't happy at all.

    Mike, a 55-year-old Calaveras County resident who asked that his last
    name not be used, said he felt safer when the government didn't have a
    list of medical marijuana users.

    "I don't think the state needs to get involved," said Mike, as he
    filled out his card renewal application in Oakland. He said marijuana
    has helped him with his ailments and improved his life.

    Dennis Peron, one of the driving forces behind Proposition 215, said
    he doesn't support the new law and said he is thinking about suing to
    block its implementation.

    "Anybody who registers with the cops is crazy," Peron
    said.

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