Cities have mixed reaction to medical marijuana IDs

November 20, 2005

Lisa Leff, Associated Press

Legalizing marijuana use for medical reasons was easy for California voters nearly a decade ago, but putting the law into practice has been anything but simple for state and local officials struggling to identify bona fide pot patients.

Consider two counties at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

In conservative San Diego, supervisors opposed to marijuana use voted this month to sue rather than offer state-ordered ID cards. In liberal San Francisco, officials postponed issuing the cards over concerns records could expose patients to federal drug charges.

The identification cards are the latest hang-up in the state’s ongoing experiment with decriminalizing marijuana since voters in 1996 approved the “Compassionate Use Act.” While some counties are balking at a California Department of Health Services directive to issue the identification cards, some cities have banned marijuana dispensaries altogether.

So far, only six of California’s 58 counties have complied with the mandate to process ID applications and forward participants’ photos and card numbers to the state. The information collected by local health departments will be entered in an Internet database police can access to confirm someone’s status as a legitimate medical cannabis user.

It is too soon to say whether the state will try to force compliance, said Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Historically, the state has given local governments a lot of latitude in how they approach medical marijuana because of weaknesses in the original act, she said.

San Diego’s legal challenge to the ID card requirement could change that. County supervisors, after refusing to participate in the program, voted 4-0 to force the issue by suing the state. The supervisors said they don’t agree that local governments should be in the business of condoning drug use.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, county supervisors urged the local health department this month to delay adopting the state ID cards until at least January while questions about efforts to safequard patient privacy were worked out.

The city already issues its own ID cards to about 8,000 medical marijuana patients, but applicants are required to provide little identifying information that could potentially be subpoenaed by federal drug agents, said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

Under the state program, applicants must have their photographs taken and provide proof of county residency, government-issued identification such as a driver’s license and a copy of the medical records indicating why they need to smoke pot.

“We are a state that is trying to pirouette around the surreal climate of medical cannabis being illegal in federal eyes and yet we want it to be decriminalized on the state and local levels,” Mirkarimi said.

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