State suspends medical marijuana ID card system

July 08, 2005

Clea Benson, Modesto Bee

Concerned that the state could be aiding a federal crime, the California Department of Health Services on Friday suspended a fledgling program that issues identification cards to medical marijuana users.

The cards are supposed to help medical pot users avoid arrest after their doctors have prescribed marijuana for pain relief, which is legal under California's Compassionate Use Act.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that federal authorities can ignore state medical marijuana statutes and enforce federal drug laws against people who use pot to ease pain.

The state has issued only 123 of the identification cards in Amador, Mendocino and Del Norte counties since beginning the program in May. The state started issuing the cards because legislators in 2003 approved Senate Bill 420, requiring the state to set up a medical marijuana identification and registry system.

Ken August, a spokesman for the Department of Health Services, said the suspension of the ID card program does not affect medical marijuana users' ability to get a prescription for the drug from their physicians that is legal.

Rather, he said, the department is concerned that issuing the cards could cause legal problems for state staff and for holders of the cards. Director of Health Services Sandra Shewry has asked Attorney General Bill Lockyer for an opinion on the matter.

August said the court decision could embolden federal agents to go after card carriers.

'We're also concerned that whatever information is gathered from cardholders could potentially be used by federal agents to identify medical marijuana users for prosecution,' August said.

Critic says move politically motivated

But Nathan Sands, chairman of the board of the Compassionate Coalition, a nonprofit medical marijuana patients rights group, decried the suspension as politically motivated.

'The attorney general has already put out several press releases saying the state law is not affected,' Sands said. 'We're confident he (Lockyer) will come out in favor of the patients, but it is strange that the governor, in addition to attacking teachers and nurses, is now attacking medical marijuana patients.' California is one of 10 states with protections for medical marijuana use.

In the Gonzales v. Raich decision last month, the Supreme Court ruled against two California women who sought the right to grow marijuana for pain relief. The decision affirmed that Congress can prohibit local cultivation and use of the drug, and that federal authorities can prosecute medical users even in states that allow medical marijuana.

Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for Lockyer, said the attorney general is reviewing the department's request.

Lockyer has determined that the recent court decision does not affect California's legalization of medical marijuana, Schilling said. Lockyer last month sent a memo to local law enforcement agencies statewide saying that the court decision does not require California peace officers to start enforcing federal drug laws, she said.

But that hasn't stopped some local officials from changing their policies on medical marijuana. Roseville last month repealed an ordinance allowing medical marijuana shops to operate in some areas.

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