CHP won't confiscate medical marijuana

August 29, 2005

Patrick Hoge, San Francisco Chronicle

 

To the delight of medical marijuana supporters, the California Highway Patrol has agreed to stop taking cannabis from motorists in routine traffic stops who have a doctor's recommendation.

The latest move in the legal battle over medical marijuana in the state came in response to a lawsuit by an advocacy group and statements by Attorney General Bill Lockyer affirming that medical marijuana use is sanctioned by California law despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"This is a huge victory for the medical marijuana movement,'' Kris Hermes, the legal campaign director of Americans for Safe Access, said at a news conference Monday. The Oakland group sued the CHP in February over its policy requiring officers to seize marijuana regardless of whether motorists presented a physician's note or an identification card from a local health agency.

An Aug. 22 memo from CHP headquarters ordered officers not to cite motorists or seize their drugs if they carry up to eight ounces of marijuana, or six mature or 12 immature plants, as long as they possess a valid state or local government medical marijuana patient or primary caregiver identification card or a signed recommendation from a physician.

"Those people will not have their marijuana seized,'' CHP Lt. Joe Whiteford said Monday.

Some counties have higher possession limits than the state, and in those jurisdictions the higher limits would apply, Whiteford said, but people from those places cannot carry more than eight ounces when traveling in other areas or they will be cited, and their marijuana will be taken.

In addition to the medical marijuana advocacy group's lawsuit, Whiteford said the CHP was prompted to change its policy when Lockyer sent a memo to state law enforcement agencies reiterating that state law sanctions medical marijuana use. State voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996 legalizing cannabis use for medical purposes.

Lockyer's statement followed the June 6 U.S. Supreme Court decision that permitted federal prosecution of marijuana users despite state laws permitting medical use.

Hermes said his group had sued the CHP on behalf of six people because surveys showed the agency was the most frequent violator of the law and because it had a specific policy requiring seizure of medical marijuana. More than 25 percent of the 457 cases of medical marijuana seizures in the 12 months ending in July involved the CHP, he said.

One plaintiff, Mary Jane Winters, a 54-year-old registered nurse who lives in Humboldt County, on Monday recalled being pulled over for speeding last Thanksgiving and having her two ounces of marijuana seized by a CHP officer. The marijuana charge was dismissed, but Winters never got her drugs back.

Winters uses marijuana to alleviate anxiety and lower back pain caused by three discs she ruptured while lifting a patient, she said.

"It really is wonderful medication,'' she said, adding that in her profession she had seen other sick people benefit from marijuana.

Also present at the news conference was Tony Bowles, 28, who was pulled over in San Francisco on May 5, 2004, for not having a front license plate. The CHP officer took 3 grams of marijuana that Bowles was carrying for his mother, even though she had a recommendation, and Bowles had identification showing he was her primary caregiver.

"It's about time that the CHP recognized the will of California voters,'' said Bowles, referring to Prop. 215. Bowles is a student and part-time medical marijuana dispensary doorman.

The change in CHP policy does not end the lawsuit against the agency, which is seeking a court order upholding the state law, said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access. A settlement of the case is possible, he said.

Elford said he hoped the CHP's reversal would lead other law enforcement agencies throughout the state also to leave legitimate medical marijuana patients alone.

"Americans for Safe Access will be watching, and if we need to, we will call upon the courts to address the situation,'' Elford said, adding that "the Los Angeles Police Department is on our radar.''

E-mail Patrick Hoge at phoge@sfchronicle.com



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