State fees for medical marijuana cards jump

February 20, 2007

Katy Brandenberg, Union Democrat (CA)

The California Department of Health Services has exponentially increased its portion of the application fee medical marijuana patients in Calaveras County must pay to receive an identification card showing they can legally use the drug.

Beginning March 1, the state's portion of the annual fee — previously $13 — will soar to $142, bringing the total patient cost to $165. State officials say the fee hike is necessary because of the low number of people in Calaveras County applying for cards: In the past 10 months, since the county's ID card program began, only 12 have applied.

Still, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to keep the fee at its current total of $45 — at least until the end of this fiscal year — and that the county health department would absorb the extra costs for now.

The state had estimated Calaveras County would issue 174 cards per year, between patients and caregivers, and based its cost per application on that number. State representatives were not available Tuesday to explain how the health agency arrived at its estimate.

The Calaveras County Department of Public Health found its costs for processing ID card applications to be lower than the state's estimate of $32 per year. The county subsequently lowered its portion of the application fee to $23, according to Jeanne Boyce, director of the Calaveras County Health Services Agency. The state health department notified the county its fees were going up in a recent letter.

"From talking to my colleagues, we're all kind of reacting to the letter, like ‘Wow, that's a big jump,'" Boyce said.

Patients who receive assistance from Medi-Cal are only required to pay half the fee, $82.50 with the increase. But for someone with high medical bills and a low income, that can still be a significant cost. Bonnie Newman, a caregiver for cancer patient Roger Adams, who spoke at the supervisors meeting Tuesday, said even the reduced fee represents 10 percent of Adams' monthly income. Only two of the 12 registered cardholders so far are eligible for Medi-Cal, with the possibility of a third patient applying soon, Boyce said.

"One of the only reasons Senate Bill 420 (the medical marijuana ID card law) got through was with the fee," Boyce said. "Because it's a voluntary program, the state agreed the users would bear the cost."

The ID card system is designed to shield medical marijuana users from arrest and prosecution by letting law enforcement know they are legitimate patients, with a doctor's recommendation for the drug. Both the patient's and caregiver's information are entered into a state database which police can check to verify they are in compliance with state law.

"From my past experience, if you're going to be allowed to legally have marijuana, you need to have that card if you're going to leave the house," said Board Chairman and District 1 Supervisor Bill Claudino, a retired California Highway Patrol officer.

Supervisor Tom Tryon said the issue is about health, not law enforcement.

"I think there needs to be a removal of law enforcement from public health," he said.

Other counties have also had low enrollment in the program, Boyce said. Only 23 out of California's 58 counties offer ID cards, due to social controversy over the acceptance of marijuana as a medicine. Patients may be reluctant to identify themselves to authorities because of the debate over legality.

"I think that is a concern statewide," Boyce said. "If I had to speculate, I think that does play a part in people not coming forward."

Adams, a cancer survivor and current medical marijuana patient, also addressed supervisors.

"I am lucky to be alive. They said I'd be dead six months after my first brain surgery, and that was in 2001," he said. "I've had chemotherapy, that's poison. Medical marijuana hasn't poisoned me at all. I'm now able to stand, to ride a stationary bike. The more I smoke, the better I get."

Newman, his caregiver, said she believes the reason for low enrollment in the card program up to this point is because of the application's cost. If the fee is more than doubled, it will only discourage more patients from applying, she said.

"If all we're going to do is basically say we're taking the program away from them by feeing them to death, I'm not for it," Tryon said. "Most are destitute because of the cost of medicine ... I don't want them to keep feeling the ravages of the drug war when it's not applicable to them anyway."

Supervisors agreed the health department would use money it receives from county sales tax income and vehicle license fees to make up the extra cost of the applications until the budget is reviewed in June.

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