Medical marijuana ID card fee hike halved

March 01, 2007

Katie Mintz, Ukiah Daily News

Just a day after the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors grudgingly voted to adopt a tenfold increase in the state's fee for issuing medical marijuana identification cards, the California Department of Health Services announced it would cut the charge by more than half.

Notices were sent to all county health directors Wednesday stating that the CDHS had abandoned the $142 fee scheduled to take effect the same day. In its place, it plans to increase the annual fee from $13 to $66 effective April 1.

According to Ana Mahoney, interim director of the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency, the higher fee is needed to cover the state's cost of administering the program, which has increased due to a smaller demand for cards than initially expected.

The decision to reduce the fee came on the heels of public outcry statewide.

In Mendocino County, medical marijuana advocates as well as law enforcement officials professed concern Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting that the high cost would keep medical marijuana patients and caregivers from using the voluntary program designed to protect their rights under Prop. 215.

Supervisor Jim Wattenburger made the motion to accept the increased fee, but not before saying he believed it could kill the program. Supervisor John Pinches, who voted against the increase, wanted to abandon the state program and return to a more equitable countywide card system.

"As county after county began to consider pulling out of the state medical marijuana ID card program, it was clear to all involved that the fee increase at the $142 level would have ended the program. We simply could not allow patients who depend on medical cannabis for pain and nausea relief to be put at risk of mistaken arrest or detainment by law enforcement," Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said.

Following CDHS' initial announcement of the fee increase in late December, Leno wrote a letter to CDHS Director Sandra Shewry urging a delay of the fee hike. He later met with Shewry and her staff to explore possible solutions.

"I think this is a more realistic charge. It brings it back into a fee-for-service situation rather than the exorbitant extortion limit they had set on it," Wattenburger said of the new fee.

Currently, the annual cost for a card in Mendocino County is $70 -- $57 of which covers the county's cost for verifying and processing the application, and $13 of which goes to the state for maintaining the program and printing the card. Beginning April 1, the price will be $123 rather than the $199 that was expected. Medi-Cal beneficiaries will continue to receive a 50 percent discount.

"Charging the lowest amount of fees is to the benefit of the program, so this is good news," Dan Taylor, director of the Public Health branch, which administers the program in the county, said Thursday.

Wattenburger, who was still reeling from Wednesday's loss of funding for the Willits bypass, said he was glad to see that local representatives still had a voice in state issues.

"Mendocino County was demanding an explanation of such a drastic increase, although that was not forthcoming, and look at what happened. They turned around and dropped the price," Wattenburger said.

However, Leno emphasized the fee reduction will only save the ID card program in the short-term unless all counties make an effort to get their constituents involved. When SB 420, which requires the CDHS to maintain a voluntary ID card program, was passed in 2005, the program was structured to accommodate 150,000 medical marijuana patients with the $13 state application fee, Leno said.

Thus far, only approximately 10,000 have been issued.

According to Leno, the program has been hampered by the failure or refusal of some of the state's most populous counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange and Sacramento, to join. Only 24 of California's 58 counties have implemented the program to date.

Dane Wilkins, director of Nor Cal NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), said at the board meeting Tuesday he thought the fee increase was premature, noting that he believed Los Angeles County would soon join the program.

On Thursday, he said the reduction was a positive change.

"It's a good step in the right direction, but we still need to make it more affordable and accessible," Wilkins said.

Katie Mintz can be reached at udjkm@pacific.net.



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