What's the big IDea? Pot cards formalize process

March 15, 2005

Roman Gokhman, The Union - Nevada County

When California's first medicinal marijuana ID cards become available in Nevada County late this year, local officials doubt the cards will change how the drug's users are dealt with locally. The program is intended to stop law enforcement from prosecuting those who are growing or using the drug within state guidelines. In Nevada County, where authorities have tolerated limited amounts of medical marijuana for people with doctor-issued recommendations, the cards likely will not stave off any busts.

'It will formalize a process we already have,' Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said. 'I don't see any major change in how we do business.'

The cards are expected to be available, for a fee, by the end of the year in all counties. The fee is meant to finance the marijuana ID program, which the state Department of Health Services hopes will protect medicinal pot users in communities where authorities do not feel a doctor's recommendation is sufficient legal protection.

A pilot program of eight counties - which do not include Nevada County - is expected to be running by late spring, Health Services spokesman Robert Miller said. Sacramento County will be one of the first to have the cards issued. The rest of California will be following suit by the end of the year, Miller said.

In Nevada County, Royal said, those found with more marijuana than they were prescribed will still have the extra amount of the drug taken away from them, and the offender could face arrest.

That is not a problem to someone like Edy Switzer. Switzer, 39, who lives in the Bay Area but is moving to Nevada City in June. She said that she has been diagnosed with severe migraines. Switzer has been prescribed Vicodin and synthetic morphine, she said, but those drugs have proven ineffective.

Switzer said she is now planning on getting a marijuana recommendation, and then getting the identification card.

'Plain and simple, I want the card so I could have marijuana legally,' she said. 'I wish there was a simpler way.'

The cards will feature photographs of the card bearers, and the state will be able to verify the cards' authenticity 24 hours a day. That way, if someone forges a card, authorities will know right away.

However, Miller said, it would be not up to his state department, but to individual law enforcement agencies to oversee the program. The California Highway Patrol has agreed to honor the cards when they are issued. Federal agencies have kept their stance that any use of marijuana is illegal.

The Nevada County Sheriff's Department, which operate a narcotics task force that handles many of the drug cases in the county, will also try to treat the cards as legitimate documents, Royal said.

Previously, the department stuck to a hard rule of no more than 10 marijuana plants producing no more than two pounds of marijuana annually, and Royal said that was because many prescriptions did not include recommended amounts of the drug.

'We are seeing more recommendations from doctors that list quantities,' he said. 'It's now a case-by-case situation. We have tried to comply with what the doctors are recommending. It has been workable for our staff.'

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