Riverside County Offers Pot ID Cards
December 01, 2005
Susannah Rosenblatt, Los Angeles Times
Riverside County will begin issuing photo identification cards to local medical marijuana users today, the first Southern California county to comply with a state law intended to shield medical patients from arrest.
"The county is trying to comply with the law approved by the voters and develop a procedure that'll do that," said Marion Ashley, Riverside County Board of Supervisors chairman. "This will probably remove the anxieties … legitimate, card-carrying users of medical marijuana may have."
Still, the cards will be issued at a time when state and federal laws conflict over the use of medical marijuana, leaving users and their suppliers in danger of facing federal charges.
California's Proposition 215 legalized the drug for therapeutic purposes in 1996, and 2003 state legislation provided for ID cards. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that federal authorities could still seize and destroy medical marijuana plants and arrest their growers and consumers — even in the 10 states that allow medical marijuana use.
While federal authorities primarily target "large-scale drug trafficking organizations," individual medical marijuana users remain vulnerable, regardless of whether they have a state-issued ID card, said Sarah Beers, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Los Angeles.
"In the eyes of the federal government, [a card] means absolutely nothing," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. "Under federal law it is illegal to possess, to sell or to cultivate marijuana."
However, the cards could help protect medicinal users of the illegal drug from prosecution by local law enforcement, county health officials said.
The Riverside County district attorney's office "recognizes that we have to follow the law, and there is a legitimate need," spokeswoman Ingrid Wyatt said.
"Those people that have [the card] will now be properly identified," Wyatt said, while "we'll be able to prosecute those who try to abuse the system."
Wyatt said the county district attorney's office reviews each medical marijuana case individually, and has prosecuted only "a handful."
The optional cards will feature a medical marijuana user's photo and a computer-generated identification number, but no name, address or medical information, said Victoria Jauregui Burns, county public health department program chief.
State estimates indicate 3,000 to 4,000 potential cardholders in Riverside County each year.
The county is the seventh in the state to begin the program; the others, including Marin and Mendocino, are in Northern California, said Patti Roberts, state health department spokeswoman.
Los Angeles County officials anticipate having such a program in place early next year, said John Schunhoff, chief of operations for public health with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
The Riverside County health department has set aside office space and assembled a staff of three to handle card applications starting today, Jauregui Burns said. Staffers also are working to draft an ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, which should come before the Planning Commission in the spring, county spokesman Ray Smith said.
Local medical marijuana advocates have been working closely with county officials for more than a year to get the ID card program running, Jauregui Burns said.
"They've been very vocal about wanting to have access to something that the law says they can," Jauregui Burns said. "We might as well just do it; dragging our feet doesn't help anybody."
Under the initiative, applicants must complete a state form and provide government-issued identification, proof of county residency, and a recommendation from a California-licensed physician, Jauregui Burns said.
Patient information will be accessible to law enforcement in a centralized database. After county health departments gather patient data, the state will issue the cards and county offices will distribute them within 30 days, Jauregui Burns said.
Like drivers' licenses, the cards will include embedded holographic patterns to protect against counterfeiting. The annual cost of obtaining and renewing the card is $100.
The new program will help ease the minds of people who fear arrest for cultivating or using marijuana on doctors' orders, said Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a local patients' rights advocacy group.
"It's a wonderful thing," said Venia La Beaux of Lake Elsinore, who grows marijuana to control the nausea and pain of her HIV. "It'll help as far as the law enforcement." Four years ago, sheriff's deputies confiscated seven marijuana plants from La Beaux's backyard. After failing a background check for a part-time job, she learned there was a warrant for her arrest. All charges against her were eventually dismissed.
"I definitely will be getting my card," La Beaux said.