Not all pot users sold on ID cards

March 02, 2006

K. Kaufmann, North County Times

Garry Silva says he will; Summer Glenney probably won't.

Both are medical marijuana users now facing a decision of whether to get a county-issued medical marijuana identification card so they can continue to buy the drug at CannaHelp, the medical marijuana dispensary on El Paseo.

The dispensary's owner, Stacy Hochanadel, struck an agreement with Palm Desert city officials Feb. 23 to require all CannaHelp customers to get the card within 30 days.

But the last-minute deal - hammered out as the City Council was about to consider revoking the dispensary's business license - has led to questions and concerns among some CannaHelp clients.

"I look at it as getting a driver's license," said Garry Silva of Sky Valley, who uses medical mari-juana to numb the pain of two herniated discs. "There's no way to have this thing and not have it regulated."

Glenney, a Loma Linda resident, opposes making the cards mandatory, mostly out of concerns for patient confidentiality.

"There are a lot of patients who don't want to put their names in a state-run database," said Glenney, who is also a local coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.

"With the county card program, if the federal government were to ask for that, they would hand it over," Glenney said.

But Hochanadel said most of his more than 500 clients appear willing to sign up, and about 10 percent already have cards. Hochanadel said he dropped off his own application in Riverside on Wednesday.


And both he and Victoria Jauregui Burns, program chief for Riverside County's medical marijuana program, said they would make every effort to safeguard patients' personal information, even from federal investigators.

"They would have to have a subpoena or search warrant, and then we would call counsel," Burns said. "It would have to go through the same process as anyone subpoenaing information from the Health Department."

Federal investigators would also need a subpoena at CannaHelp, Hochanadel said, and for additional security, the dispensary keeps most of its patient information on an offsite server.

He is more concerned about the 60 to 80 dispensary clients who, like Glenney, live outside Riverside County. Although the state law says counties can issue cards to any California resident, Riverside is only issuing cards to county residents.

"We have to work out some kind of clarification on that," Hochanadel said, "so (people) outside of the county will still be able to (use) regular (doctor) recommendations."

A written agreement between Hochanadel and the city has yet to be finalized, said City Attorney David Erwin.

Hochanadel's lawyer should be receiving a draft today or early next week, Erwin said.

The law and the cards

California voters approved a medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 215, in 1996. The state Legislature passed Senate Bill 420 in 2003, setting out guidelines for counties to issue the voluntary ID cards to patients with letters of recommendation from their doctors.

Requiring patients to have a card is not in the spirit of the law, said Lanny Swerdlow of Palm Springs, who heads the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a patient support group.

But, he said, "It's the best expediency right now. My bottom line is always no arrests, and it's only the card that guarantees no arrests."

And Erwin said the agreement still makes the card voluntary. "Mr. Hochanadel is voluntarily agreeing to restrict his sales to those people who have it; he's not forcing anyone to get the card."

Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services, which issues the cards, said the law is purposefully vague to allow cities and counties to set their own standards.

"Those issues (requiring cards) are local county issues," Roberts said. "DHS has no responsibility for dispensary requirements."

Riverside County started issuing the cards in December. CannaHelp is one of two dispensaries in the county; the other is the Collective Apothecary of Palm Springs - called CAPS.

Staff at the Palm Springs dispensary were not available for comment Wednesday.

CannaHelp is also starting its own card system, so each client has a picture ID from the dispensary as well as the county card. The dispensary will start issuing the cards in about three or four weeks, he said.

City, business compromise

The agreement to require the county card was sparked by city concerns about potential abuse of state law by people without a valid need for medical marijuana.

Between October - when the city issued the license to CannaHelp, then called Hempie's - and January, the Palm Desert police reported seven incidents in which they arrested or cited CannaHelp clients.

In one instance, a client attempted to sell marijuana from the dispensary to two teens, and in another, a client was alleged to have shared medical marijuana with someone without a valid medical need.

In the other five cases, police were unable to verify a patient's letter of recommendation from a doctor.

Hochanadel agreed to require clients to have the county card to resolve what Lt. Steve Thetford, Palm Desert's assistant chief of police, has called "gray areas of the law" - like the voluntary ID cards - that do not provide clear guidelines for police.

Following the agreement, Thetford was cautiously hopeful that the card requirement would help officers on the street to identify valid patients.

The big question now is whether CannaHelp can meet the 30-day deadline for getting cards for all its clients.

A week into the transition period, Burns said her office has not seen an appreciable increase in applications.

As of Wednesday, the county Department of Public Health had issued 114 cards, up from 105 a week ago.

Burns said her staff could process 64 to 80 applications a week. Turnaround from application to card is about eight to 10 business days, she said.

Mike Lerner of La Quinta has yet to apply for a card, but the CannaHelp client said he would before the March 23 deadline.

"I'm not real happy about it, but I will apply for it," said Lerner, who uses medical marijuana for his arthritis. "That way I know I'm not going to get hassled."

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