Supervisors to decide on pot ID cards

February 22, 2007

Josh Fernandez, Daily Democrat (CA)

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the Health Department's proposal to implement the statewide Medical Marijuana ID Card Program.

From the looks of it, the decision won't be easy.

In November 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which set out to make medical marijuana available to people with certain illnesses, including anorexia, migraine, cancer, arthritis and glaucoma.

Although the initial proposition allowed for seriously ill people to use marijuana, it didn't provide a way for law enforcement to correctly identify those people from the ones illegally using the drug.

To help solve this problem, along with other problems associated with the proposition, Senate Bill 420, which was effective Jan. 1, 2004. The ID card program was voluntary for people to sign up for, but it required counties to provide forms for people to sign up with.

Across the state, counties have been varied in their response to medical marijuana.

While some counties have already begun to implement the ID card program, some have fought against it.

In opposition to the ID cards, San Diego County challenged the legality of requiring counties to implement the program. One year ago, the county filed a lawsuit questioning California's authority to make counties participate in the program. In December 2006, Superior Court Judge William R. Nevitt Jr. rejected San Diego County's suit.

Plumas County Public Health Agency Director Henry Foley said that despite the taboos surrounding pot as medicine, the board of supervisors decided to issue the ID cards as of Mar. 1.

"There were certain members of the board who felt that under certain circumstances that marijuana was appropriate," Foley said.

In his background report to the board, Foley also pointed out that San Diego and San Bernardino counties challenged the legality of the medical marijuana laws and federal courts denied their positions.

"We decided to follow the court ruling," Foley said.

Now it's Yolo County's turn to decide what to do.

Proponents of the ID card say it provides "around-the-clock" validation of participation in the program when police confront a patient and ultimately saves taxpayer money by stopping arrests of certified patients.

"It's going to help with interactions with law enforcement ... (and) help patients avoid harassment," Nathan Sands, a local representative for the Compassionate Coalition, said. "I haven't heard any good arguments against (the card)."

One argument - and perhaps the most effective one to date - is that under federal law, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, which deems it illegal and subject to federal prosecution, according to a report issued by the Riverside County District Attorney's office.

California is one of 11 states where marijuana use is legal for people with a doctor's recommendation, but because the federal government does not recognize pot's medical benefits, patients can still be arrested and prosecuted by federal authorities.

Aaron Smith, an ID card coordinator with the statewide advocacy group Safe Access Now, said the ID cards are legal and necessary.

"It's important to point out that this ID program doesn't violate federal law," Smith said. "For (anyone) to assert that federal law preempts state law doesn't make any sense."

With heaps of research mounted on both sides of the issue, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors have a weighty decision on their hands.

District 4 Supervisor Mariko Yamada said that she voted for Proposition 215 in 1996 and would be inclined to vote in favor of the ID cards.

"It's a medical issue, not a drug or alcohol issue," she said.

Last week, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco reported in the journal Neurology that a test involving 50 HIV patients showed that those who smoked marijuana experienced much less pain than those given placebos.

District 3 Supervisor Matt Rexroad even wrote on his blog regarding the issue:

"I've never smoked (or inhaled) marijuana but personally have real doubts about making it illegal while we allow alcohol and tabacco (sic) to be used freely. We have to draw a line somewhere but I am not sure that the current line can be justified."

District 5 Supervisor Duane Chamberlain has indicated that he is opposed to the ID cards and District 1 Supervisor Mike McGowan and District 2 Supervisor Helen Thomson were unavailable for comment by press time.

"We applaud the Board for taking up this important issue and are hopeful that Yolo County's elected officials will listen to their constituency and vote to protect local patients," Smith said.

- Reach Josh Fernandez at 406-6233 or via e-mail at jfernandez@dailydemocrat.com.



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