Very hazy landscape

March 15, 2007

EDITORIAL, Contra Costa Times (CA)

LET'S SEE, NOW ... California voters want it. The federal government doesn't. Patients need it. But if they use it, they could be prosecuted. Oh yes, lest we forget, the state department charged with keeping track of it is making it more expensive to obtain.

Confused? You are not alone. Let's see if we can help.

The "it" in this case is medical marijuana. More than 10 years ago, the electorate in California -- and many other states since -- voted to allow marijuana as a medical treatment, primarily to ease pain associated with serious diseases.

But the feds have steadfastly insisted that passage of Proposition 215 does not supersede the federal Controlled Substances Act, which bans marijuana use.

A federal appeals court Wednesday ruled that medical necessity doesn't shield users from prosecution, all the while advancing the notion that it could be used as a defense at trial.

Meanwhile, one might think the state Department of Health Services (DHS) is out to kill the medical marijuana identification card program. The department planned to increase the cost of the cards tenfold before wiser minds prevailed and cut the hike in half.

But the episode makes us wonder if health services officials are serious about implementing Prop. 215.

In December, the DHS proposed to increase the fee for the identification cards from $13 to $142. The cards are available to patients authorized by physicians to use marijuana for medical purposes, indicating their purchase, use and possession of marijuana is legal under state law.

Supposedly, officials did not consider that the cost might be a deterrent for patients. They said they were only thinking about covering the cost of the program.

Even without the proposed huge fee increase, the card program has been a flop. Thirty-four of the state's 58 counties have not joined the program because of concerns about how the state is running it.

San Francisco and others have threatened to disregard the state program and issue their own cards. Although an estimated 100,000 Californians were expected to sign up for cards, only 9,500 had done so by February.

The big fee hike would have been the death knell for the program, according to Democratic Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco.

It makes one wonder if that was the intent. Were DHS officials attempting to undermine the state program?

As it is, the lower fee still represents a fivefold increase, from $13 to $66 and up to $33 for Medi-Cal patients. Medical marijuana advocates seem willing to accept the smaller increase.

Now, DHS officials need to get serious about implementing a plan that facilitates the distribution of medical marijuana. That's what the state's voters approved more than a decade ago.

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