Merced County issues first pot cards

May 14, 2007

Corinne Reilly, Merced Sun-Star (CA)

After a year of debate, Merced County began issuing identification cards for medical marijuana users two weeks ago. But so far, just three people have signed up for the controversial program, county officials said.

County spokeswoman Katie Albertson said two patients and one caregiver have requested ID cards since the county began accepting applications for the cards on May 1.

"We weren't exactly sure what to expect in terms of the numbers, but it does seem low," Albertson said.

The county announced in December their decision to begin issuing the cards, following a state judge's decision to reject the county's challenge to California's medical marijuana law.

Merced, San Diego and San Bernadino counties brought the lawsuit against the state last August. They argued that because federal law prohibits all uses of the drug, counties shouldn't be held to state laws requiring them to accommodate medical marijuana users.

In California, people with a valid prescription for the drug are allowed to have up to eight ounces of usable marijuana and six mature pot plants.

The ID cards are meant to help law enforcement officials quickly determine whether a person found in possession of marijuana is using the drug in compliance with the law, or whether he or she should be arrested.

Under state law, caregivers who assist patients with a valid marijuana prescription can also get an ID card.

Merced resident Grant Wilson, who has long been urging the county to adopt a card program, said he and his caregiver account for two of the three people who have applied.

Wilson suffers from Hepatitis C and was arrested in 2005 after police discovered pot plants growing in his home. He said he applied for the card the day after the county began accepting applications. He's still waiting for the card to arrive.

"I made my appointment (to apply) as soon as they'd let me," Wilson said. "I've been waiting a long time for this and I'm tired of worrying about getting arrested again."

But Wilson says his fight to have his medicine is far from over.

The city of Merced already has an ordinance in place that prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries from operating within the city limits, and Merced County is now looking at adding a similar ordinance.

Wilson says he's been growing his own marijuana, but he doesn't have the greenest thumb.

"Not everybody has the know-how to grow their own, and when you have health problems like mine, traveling to San Francisco to get your medicine is an extra burden that you shouldn't have to deal with," Wilson said.

County attorney James Fincher said the county adopted an emergency, temporary ordinance against marijuana dispensaries in May of 2005. It expired a year later.

County staff are now preparing information on a permanent ordinance for the county's Board of Supervisors, which will likely vote on the matter within the next two months.

Currently, there are no medical marijuana dispensaries in the county.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said he is pushing the ban.

While dispensaries are, in theory, supposed to provide medical marijuana users a safe, legal alternative to buying pot on the street, Pazin said dispensaries "draw a criminal element that Merced just doesn't need."

"Nothing good will come to Merced from these dispensaries as far as I'm concerned," Pazin said. "For the most part, they're about making a quick buck, not about helping individuals with medical issues."

In addition to attracting crime, critics say dispensaries can lower property values and disrupt nearby businesses.

Aaron Smith, a Medical marijuana advocate with Safe Access Now, said that instead of banning dispensaries, the county should adopt an ordinance regulating them.

"Without dispensaries, many patients are left to get their medicine on the black market," Smith said. "A well-regulated dispensary that's placed in the right area is actually a good thing for the community."

Currently 24 of California's 58 counties issue medical marijuana ID cards, as required by a 2003 state law that expanded on Proposition 215.

California voters became the first in the country to legalize medicinal marijuana when they passed the proposition in 1996. Since then, 10 states have followed.

All marijuana users can still be prosecuted under federal law.

To get a card in Merced, county residents are required to submit an application and a physician's order for the drug.

The cards cost $225 a piece and expire after a year.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.



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