STATE TO ISSUE ID CARDS TO MEDICINAL POT USERS
Program Is Designed to Halt Stash Seizures and Prosecutions
California health officials plan to issue identification cards to medical marijuana users that would prohibit state and local authorities from seizing their stashes or prosecuting them, officials said Tuesday.
The cards will be available this summer for patients in at least 10 counties, including Marin and Sonoma, and statewide by the end of the year, said state Department of Health Services spokeswoman Norma Arceo.
All cards will have photographs, she said, and the state will have a 24- hour, toll-free number that police can call to verify that identification cards are authentic. Five other states -- Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- have similar ID cards, Arceo said.
News of California's card program came as an advocacy group in Berkeley filed a lawsuit Tuesday, claiming the California Highway Patrol has seized marijuana from people who have provided a written doctor's recommendation.
"It's a sorry, sorry state of affairs when people fear having their property taken by cops rather than criminals," said Joseph Elford, an attorney with Americans for Safe Access, which filed the suit in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland.
A study by the group last year estimated the cost to state and local government of processing such cases was about $4 million a year.
CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said Tuesday that the agency would honor the state-issued ID cards but would continue its long-standing policy of confiscating marijuana seized from motorists until the cards were issued.
"We're just continuing the policy that we've had," Marshall said. "The change will be when those cards are issued."
A voluntary card program was authorized in late 2003 by a law sponsored by former state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, but money was not available for implementation until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a
$1.5 million startup loan, said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the governor's Department of Finance. The money will be repaid, and the ID card program will be sustained with fees charged to cardholders, he said.
Federal law enforcement agencies, by contrast, have maintained that marijuana use is illegal nationwide.
Vasconcellos' bill, which then-Gov. Gray Davis signed, attempted to standardize the jumble of local medical marijuana laws passed after 1996, when state voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, that legalized medical use of marijuana. The SB420 set a statewide possession limit of 8 ounces per authorized individual.
Elford said the CHP's position is illegal because Vasconcellos' legislation does not require that patients have a state-issued identification card, only a written or verbal doctor's authorization.
Anthony Bowles of San Francisco, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, said he had been pulled over in May by a CHP officer because his front license plate was missing. The officer searched him without his consent, Bowles said, and found 3 grams of marijuana that he had for his mother, who suffers from a chronic anxiety disorder.
He said he had shown the officer the "primary caregiver" card issued to him by the San Francisco Department of Heath, but the officer seized the pot and issued him a misdemeanor citation for possession of marijuana.
The possession charge was withdrawn by the prosecutor at Bowles' first court appearance, and now Bowles is trying to get the pot back.
"It's horrendous," said Bowles, 28. "I think, 'What if it was my mother instead of me who was going through this?' "
Arceo said the state would begin a pilot program for the ID cards this summer in Amador, Del Norte, Trinity, Mendocino, Marin, Shasta, Sacramento, Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Yuba counties. All 58 counties will be issuing cards by December, she said.