Judge rejects San Diego challenge to medical marijuana law

November 15, 2006

Allison Hoffman, Associated Press

A state judge on Thursday rejected San Diego County's challenge of California's decade-old law permitting marijuana use for medical purposes.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge William R. Nevitt, Jr., was tentative. The county's lawyers will have a chance to convince the judge to change his decision during oral arguments scheduled later Thursday.

San Diego County sued the state of California and its health services director in February, saying a federal ban on marijuana use trumps state laws that permit usage of the drug with a physician's approval.

Two other California counties, San Bernardino and Merced, joined San Diego as plaintiffs. All three counties have refused to comply with a state requirement that counties issue identification cards for medical marijuana users and maintain a registry of people who apply for the cards.

In his ruling, Nevitt agreed with attorneys for the state, who argued that California is entitled to pass its own drug laws and legislate programs that allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

Five California patients and caregivers, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Safe Access and other advocacy groups, joined the case on the side of the state. A sixth patient, Pamela Sakuda, who suffered from rectal cancer, died last Friday, said William Dolphin, a spokesman for ASA.

Supporters of the law expressed relief.

"They tried to make California's medical marijuana law null and void, and they lost," said Anjuli Verma, director of advocacy for the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project.

San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn said he welcomed the clarity of the judge's ruling.

"All we wanted was guidance from the court telling us where we're at so we don't break any rules and lose any funding," Horn said.

He said the county had not considered whether to appeal if the judge affirms his tentative ruling.

California's law allows people suffering AIDS, cancer, anorexia, chronic pain, arthritis and migraine and "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief" to grow or possess small amounts of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

Since California voters passed the law 55 percent approval in 1996, 10 other states have adopted measures protecting qualified patients from prosecution. They are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Last week, voters in South Dakota rejected a ballot measure to permit marijuana use for medical purposes.

In 2003, the California Legislature amended the 1996 bill to direct county health departments to issue ID cards to medical marijuana users.

Counties, which did not receive money to fulfill the requirement, have been slow to issue ID cards, but San Diego was the first to refuse on legal grounds.

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