Medicinal marijuana ID cards available

January 04, 2006

Lisa Fernandez, Mercury News

Bennett Getter, a 52-year-old San Mateo chauffeur who suffers from arthritis and pancreas problems, stopped by the San Mateo County Health Department on Tuesday, one of the first in line to apply for a government-issued medicinal marijuana ID card.

``It's better than a doctor's note, which is paper and can get mutilated,'' he said.

That's what state lawmakers had in mind when they passed SB 420, a law that requires counties to issue ``Medical Marijuana Identification Cards.'' Legal marijuana users can flash the cards to law enforcement personnel and cannabis clubs, showing that they have a valid doctor's note to use pot for a medical condition.

San Mateo County on Tuesday began complying with the law, which was signed in 2003, although only a handful of Bay Area counties have begun issuing the cards. San Mateo County officials said five or six people had filled out the paperwork by Tuesday afternoon.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors may approve the program at the end of the month, said county public health spokeswoman Teresa Chagoya. If that happens, the county could begin issuing cards by March 1.

The law doesn't mandate that individuals carry the new cards -- only that counties make them available. Some users see that the card will provide an official looking document if they are pulled over by police, but they also see that the cards won't be a panacea for every pot-related problem.

Fears response

``I'm wondering if, when a cop pulls me over and sees that I have a card, he'll figure I'm a pothead,'' Getter said. ``And will he want to draw his gun more?''

San Mateo County Deputy Public Health Director John Conley acknowledged there are shortcomings to having a card -- the biggest one being that people must make personal information available to the county. Some medicinal marijuana advocates fear the federal government will somehow be able to retrieve that information.

The federal government still views all marijuana as illegal, with or without a state-issued ID.

But in most cases, it's still up to local police departments to decide whether to arrest medicinal marijuana users. And as long as a person has a doctor's note or valid ID and a legal amount of marijuana, the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office won't be prosecuting, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

``I think it's a good idea that a government agency is carefully reviewing who is signing up to get medical marijuana,'' he said. ``But this does not work like a Monopoly Get Out of Jail card if someone has more than the allowed amount. We want to help people who really need this, not just the dope smokers.''

The law also clarifies how much medicinal marijuana is considered legal under Proposition 215, which California voters passed in 1996 -- eight ounces of dried marijuana, 12 immature plants or six mature plants.

Conley said the biggest benefit of having a card is that it likely would shorten the amount of time a police officer would take to determine whether someone was legally using marijuana. ``This card should make that process take only a minute or two.''

The cards also are intended to be recognized throughout the state and make it faster for cannabis club dispensers to check out whether a doctor's note is valid.

Despite the card program, there are no cannabis clubs in San Mateo County; the closest ones are in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Oakland.

The counties where those cities are located haven't yet adopted SB 420 -- because many of those cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, already issue their own cards. San Francisco County will begin issuing a state card next week.

The law does not give a deadline as to when counties must begin issuing the cards, although officials say most counties in the state will be getting on board soon. By the end of January, 15 counties are expected to be complying with the law.

Little impact

The card may not really have much impact in the Bay Area, said Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access. Most police agencies in the area don't make busting medicinal marijuana users their top priority.

``But for the rest of the state,'' she said, ``this is really important.''

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