The voters who passed Proposition 215 in 1996, allowing Californians to use marijuana for medical purposes with their doctor's approval, "did not intend for the DMV to have authority to strip medical marijuana patients of their licenses," Joe Elford, a lawyer for Americans for Safe Access, said Thursday.
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Elford filed suit Wednesday in Merced on behalf of Rose Johnson, 53, whose license was suspended in July. Although there was no evidence that Johnson had ever driven under the influence of marijuana, the suit said, the DMV told her she was unfit to drive because of "addiction to, or habitual use," of a drug.
Americans for Safe Access has received similar complaints from marijuana patients in seven other counties, including Alameda, Contra Costa and Sonoma, said spokesman Kris Hermes. He said the DMV appears to have "a practice or policy, whether written or unwritten, of scrutinizing medical marijuana patients' status and (in some cases) suspending or revoking licenses because of that status."
The advocacy group has represented patients in three of those cases and persuaded the DMV to reinstate the licenses, Elford said.
DMV spokeswoman Jan Mendoza said the department treats medical marijuana "like any prescription drug, anything that could possibly impair your driving."
If a law enforcement officer or someone else notifies the DMV that a driver takes such medication, Mendoza said, a state safety officer looks into the driver's medical condition, record and use of the drug and decides whether the person is fit to be behind the wheel. She said the department does not automatically revoke medical marijuana users' licenses.
Johnson, who lives in Atwater, was injured in 1990 when her car was rear-ended and uses marijuana to reduce her pain, Elford said. When she went to the local DMV office to renew her license in April, the lawyer said, a clerk saw her moving slowly because of her injuries and recommended that the department re-evaluate her license.
At two DMV hearings, Johnson testified that she used marijuana only before bedtime and never before driving, and a hearing officer observed that she had an excellent driving record, her suit said. It said the department nevertheless concluded she was unable to drive safely and suspended her license indefinitely.
The suit said the suspension violated both Prop. 215 and "the constitutional right to control the course of one's own medical treatment."
Johnson seeks a court order restoring her license and prohibiting the DMV from suspending licenses of medical marijuana patients "based solely on their status."