Medical marijuana users protected

May 16, 2006

Sarah Jimenez, Fresno Bee

Tulare County became the second Central Valley county Tuesday to start a medical marijuana identification program to protect patients and caregivers from arrest.

Tulare County supervisors unanimously approved beginning the program July 1 and setting a $100 fee to cover operational costs.

Under the identification program, counties compile information from patients, including a photo, and submit it to the state Department of Health Services. The department distributes the ID cards and maintains an Internet database that police can access to confirm status as a legitimate medical marijuana user.

The program is voluntary.

Karen Elliott, administrative specialist with Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, said applicants can download an application from the California Department of Health Services' Web site or pick one up at a county health office.

Once an application is submitted, applicants must visit the county health office to provide documents — such as a doctor's recommendation — and take a picture.

The cards must be annually renewed and the $100 fee is charged each year, Elliott said. Patients who are eligible for Medi-Cal can have 50% of the fee waived.

The identification program is a result of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, approved by California voters in November 1996. The law allows patients or their caregivers to possess or cultivate marijuana for medical purposes if they have a doctor's written recommendation.

Under federal law, marijuana use remains illegal, even as medication.

In October 2003, a law was put into place that required the establishment of a statewide ID program for those who qualify and set rules for qualifying patients and caregivers.

Norma Arceo, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services, said there is no deadline for counties to implement the program.

The program operates in 19 of California's 58 counties. Kern County is the only Central Valley county now operating the program.

Fresno County officials are considering either hiring a nonprofit organization to operate the program or having the county health department oversee it, said David Luchini, division manager of Fresno County's Department of Communicable Disease.

Luchini said he expected the options and a proposed fee to be presented to Fresno County supervisors sometime in August.

Carol Barney, Madera County public health director, said county counsel is evaluating how the program should be implemented.

Kings County officials are waiting for a ruling in a lawsuit by two California counties that argue the 1996 act and ID program are in conflict with federal law, said Peter Moock, county counsel.

San Diego and San Bernardino counties are a part of the lawsuit filed earlier this year, said Tom Bunton, senior deputy county counsel for San Diego County. Merced County has filed a complaint to join the lawsuit, he said.

The case has not gone before a judge.

Several medical marijuana patients and advocates applauded Tulare County supervisors during Tuesday's public hearing.

"I'm very grateful you're taking the time to give this attention," said Brandon Morse of Visalia.

Morse, 20, said he has suffered from a variety of mental health disorders —including manic depression and bipolar disorder — since 1998 and attempted suicide in 2005. Medications for the disorders caused severe side effects, including feeling physically and mentally unbalanced, he said.

Medical marijuana has helped alleviate those side effects and "made an unbelievable difference in my life," said Morse, whose father, Rick Morse, is the president of the Tulare County chapter of Americans for Safe Access.

David Silva of Tulare said he's been HIV positive for 30 years and uses medical marijuana to "tolerate" medications. He said he "wouldn't be here" without it and was thankful the county moved quickly in starting the program.

Some residents asked if the county would consider lowering the fee for low-income people. Others questioned how nonambulatory patients are expected to appear in person to finalize their identification applications.

Chairman Steve Worthley said the county will evaluate its fee once the program is operating.

"We may find out we've underestimated. We may find out we've overestimated," he said.

Ray Bullick, director of health services for Tulare County, said the county will also wait until the program is operating before considering a "mobile program."

He said there are specific confidentiality requirements that might make a mobile program difficult.

For more information on the Tulare County medical marijuana identification program, call (559) 737-4660.

The reporter can be reached at sjimenez@fresnobee.comor (559) 622-2413.

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