Court backs ID-card law on medical marijuana

July 31, 2008

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union Tribune

San Diego County has lost its latest court fight against a state law requiring counties to issue government identification to qualified medical marijuana patients.

In a 39-page ruling yesterday, the 4th District Court of Appeal said San Diego and San Bernardino counties have no legal authority to resist the identification card program.

The counties had argued that issuing government identification to medical marijuana patients would violate federal drug laws that categorize marijuana as one of the most dangerous known drugs.

Federal law does not recognize any medical benefits to marijuana, even though California and 10 other states passed laws allowing patients to use the drug to ease symptoms from cancer, AIDS and other sicknesses.

“We conclude the identification card laws do not pose a significant impediment to specific federal objectives embodied in the (U.S. Controlled Substances Act),” the ruling from the three-judge panel says.

“The purpose of the CSA is to combat recreational drug use, not to regulate a state's medical practices.”

Attorneys defending the state of California were not available for comment.

Lawyers representing San Diego-area patients said they were not surprised by the ruling, and they reiterated their position that identification cards will help police and patients.

“(Such cards) let the police know they shouldn't waste their time harassing or otherwise investigating patients who are legal under California law,” said Joseph Elford of Americans for Safe Access.

San Diego County supervisors voted to sue the state rather than issue the ID cards after then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the legislation into law in 2003. Merced and San Bernardino counties joined the case, although Merced later abandoned the suit and issued the cards.

The counties lost at the trial-court level in 2006 and opted to appeal. They have 40 days to decide whether to appeal yesterday's ruling to the California Supreme Court or implement the program.

Thomas Bunton, the senior deputy county counsel in charge of the case, said he was disappointed with the ruling. The county maintains that issuing the cards would condone actions that are illegal under federal law.

“The court really didn't get to the key issue,” Bunton said. “(Federal law) clearly regulates medical practices. It says marijuana has no currently accepted medical use.”

County health officials have estimated that 3,000 or more patients would apply for the government identification. Other patients want nothing to do with the cards because they do not want to be publicly identified as marijuana users.

Elford said 36 of the state's 58 counties have issued the cards; the balance have been waiting for the San Diego County case to be decided before implementing the program.

A spokesman for Supervisor Greg Cox said the board chairman would have no comment on the ruling until he can discuss the matter in private. Bunton said he expects to meet with supervisors in closed-session next week.

San Diego patient Aaron Klein said he worries that supervisors will appeal again, rather than follow the state law.

“For some reason, there's a deep-rooted hatred for medical marijuana patients here,” said Klein, who runs a support group for such patients that has swelled to 150 members. “I don't know why.” 

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