Medical marijuana out of reach in Ventura County

December 16, 2006

Teresa Rochester, Ventura County Star

It's been 15 months since California's counties were given the OK to roll out a state-mandated medical marijuana identification card program, and so far two-dozen counties have done so.

Ventura County isn't among them.

Legal wrangling over the law prompted the county to put a halt to creating its own program.

"We decided to take a prudent and practical approach to this," Public Health Director Linda Henderson said. "We're waiting until all legal issues are resolved."

The county started working on a local identification card program in July, when California's Department of Health Services approved such programs. The cards are applied for and processed on the county level but issued by the state.

But work stopped when San Diego County sued the health services director and the state.

Two other counties, Merced and San Bernardino, joined the suit, which challenged the law requiring the identification cards as well as the voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996 that allows people with a number of ailments to grow and use marijuana for medical purposes.

Earlier this month, a San Diego Superior Court judge shot down the counties' lawsuit. Judge William R. Nevitt Jr. ruled that counties would not be breaking federal laws by giving out state identification cards.

Medical marijuana users in California can still be prosecuted under federal drug laws.

On Tuesday, San Diego county officials decided to appeal Nevitt's ruling.

That means Ventura County's medical marijuana users will have a longer wait for the cards, which allow qualified patients and caregivers to possess, grow, transport and use medical marijuana.

Lisa Cordova Schwarz, a retired nurse and executive director of the Ventura County Alliance for Medical-Marijuana Patients, chastised the county for not setting up a program yet.

"That's just a cop-out," Schwarz said of the county's approach. "Every month, more counties are starting their ID programs."

Henderson said the county didn't want to start a program only to have it shut down.

San Luis Obispo County started its program Thursday.

The first applicant arrived at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, armed with a completed application downloaded from the county's Web site, his personal ID and his physician's recommendation letter. A digital photo was taken of the applicant and his information entered into a computer. The entire process took 15 minutes, said Kathleen O'Neill, San Luis Obispo County's Community Health Services manager.

Two more applicants came in on Friday. It took the county about six months to get the program off the ground.

O'Neill said county officials felt the implementation was a "clear state mandate," and, therefore, they proceeded despite the San Diego case.

"We're not taking a judgmental position of whether this is a good idea or not," O'Neill said. "We are just following the state law. We are also not judging the applicants who walk into Public Health. We are simply doing our job."

O'Neill had sent a letter to all of the police chiefs in the county explaining the program and the county's protocols.

In Kern County, 74 cards have been issued to patients and two cards have been issued to caregivers since the program started in January, County Health Officer and Director of Public Health Dr. Babatunde Jinadu said.

"It's going well with us," he said. "We have not had any problems with it."

Other counties that have implemented the program include Contra Costa, Imperial, Riverside, San Francisco and Santa Barbara.

Statewide, 7,830 cards have been issued. Cardholder information is entered into a statewide database so law enforcement can verify whether or not a card is legitimate.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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