OC Supervisors OK medical pot ID

July 17, 2007

Peggy Lowe, Orange County Register

Medical marijuana users will finally be able to get county-issued photo identification cards within four months even while their ability to buy cannabis at legal local dispensaries is growing increasingly difficult.

After four months of debate, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved establishing the ID program that cannabis users say will protect them from law enforcement harassment and the seizure of their pain medication.

But while the county board seemed to soften from what one doctor called the "Cheech and Chong view" of marijuana, more and more Orange County cities are enacting bans or moratoriums on medical cannabis dispensaries. Aliso Viejo, Fullerton, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Placentia, Newport Beach and Seal Beach are among the cities moving to outlaw the shops.

The latest city is San Juan Capistrano, where the city council planned a vote Tuesday night on a moratorium after the city received an inquiry about opening a medical marijuana dispensary there, said Mayor Sam Allevato.

"There are potential problems with whether we'd be violating federal laws and state laws on possession," he said. "I think we need further study."

Recognizing the cities' reluctance, the board said it would study further the issue of dispensaries within certain zoned areas. The county health agency doesn't keep track of dispensaries and medical marijuana advocates would only say that there are some in the county, but wouldn't disclose their locations. Most appear to be in unincorporated areas of the county, where the shops don't fall under a city's jurisdiction.

Orange County now joins 31 other California counties who already have the ID card program that was mandated by a 2003 state law following the voter-approved Proposition 215 in 1996.

Supervisor Janet Nguyen was the lone vote on the five-member board against the plan, saying the drug is still illegal according to federal law. She wanted to wait for a legal challenge to the state law filed by San Diego County, a decision that may not come down for at least another year.

But Supervisor Bill Campbell said he was convinced by a recent study and doctors' testimony that shows marijuana is an effective treatment for people's chronic pain, stimulating appetite and controlling nausea. The cards would also be another tool for law enforcement, so officers would know who is legally allowed to use and carry the drug, he said.

"This would free up law enforcement and the DA's time to address other pressing public safety issues," Campbell said.

Cards for patients and caregivers will cost $150, and people on Medi-Cal will pay a reduced rate of $75. Health care officials estimate they will issue approximately 800 cards each year, which will cost the county $63,672.

Supervisors Pat Bates and John Moorlach worried that the cards could be abused and added a provision that would allow for revocation. Bates also asked the county's attorneys to make certain that illegal immigrants be barred from receiving the cards.

Contact the writer: (714) 285-2862 or plowe@ocregister.com

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