Marijuana Activists Fight DEA Efforts to Eviscerate Medical Privacy

January 27, 2011

Kelley Vlahos,

If the State of Michigan won't protect the people, activists will.

So went the cry of medical marijuana groups in Michigan this week, concerned that the privacy of medical marijuana patients there is at grave risk.

According to reports, the Michigan Association of Compassion Clubs filed an emergency motion this week to halt efforts by the federal government to gain access to the records of several Michigan medical marijuana patients. As a result, A U.S. District Court hearing this week that would have decided whether the Michigan Department of Community Health would have to comply with a June subpoena by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for the records was postponed until Feb. 1, giving a host of advocacy groups a chance to file amicus "friend of the court" briefs against the DEA's efforts.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA) said it filed its own brief on Thursday, pointing out that the current medical marijuana law in Michigan protects the privacy of patients and that the state is obligated at all costs to uphold it, even at the risk of crossing the federal government.

"We must do everything we can to protect that right to privacy, especially for medical marijuana patients who remain vulnerable due to an outdated federal law," said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, author of the group's amicus brief, in a statement. "Patient privacy is an important ethical and public health issue of our time, regardless of whether patients benefit from the use of medical marijuana."

For its part, the DEA is seeking "copies of any and all documents, records, applications, payment method of any application for Medical Marijuana Patient Cards and Medical Marijuana Caregiver cards and copies of front and back of any cards located for the seven named individuals" in an ongoing investigation. While the DEA has declined to name the individuals or provide any details of the case, activists believe it is connected with an investigation into medical marijuana patients and caregivers in the Lansing area.

So far, the state has refused the DEA's request, arguing that turning over the records would actually put the Department of Community Health at risk of breaking its own law.

Unfortunately, the DEA has an ally in new state Attorney General Bill Schuette, a vocal opponent of the medical marijuana program. Court records reveal that his office has already agreed to turn over the records if the court orders it -- and if the department and its employees are given immunity from liability for breaking the privacy provisions in the law. The state's medical marijuana law says such disclosures are punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of up to $1,000.

In the emergency motion to stop the court proceedings this week, Traverse City attorney Jesse Williams, representing the compassion clubs, said that based on the language in the DEA's subpoena it is "highly likely" that it is after more than just the records of seven people, making this fight a more critical crossroads for Michigan's nascent medical marijuana law (it only went into effect in 2009).

Williams added that he did not think Schuette was acting in the best interest of the people, and was failing to live up to his obligation to defend the law.

"Because of the AG's publicly stated adverse opinion, and his personal biases, he did not (defend the law) here."

It looks like activists have their work cut out for them in beating back efforts by the the federal government and the state's top cop to eviscerate the medical privacy of legal marijuana users and their providers. If they fail, however, it will set an awful precedent, in which medical marijuana patients will be seen as less worthy of privacy protections than all other kinds of patients in the eyes of the law. Not only that, it will impose a sense of fear among patients and prospective patients and caregivers that the state will not protect them, even if they are obeying the rules.

And that's probably the point.

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