DMV revises guidelines on medical marijuana
March 03, 2009
Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
Medical marijuana patients in California won't be at risk of losing their driver's licenses unless they get behind the wheel while under the influence.
That was the word Tuesday from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which sent a revised training manual to its employees last month explaining how to treat drivers who have a doctor's approval to use pot.
The DMV denied it was changing its policy and said the manual merely spelled out the department's long-standing practice.
Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, disagreed. It said the DMV was responding to a lawsuit the group filed last fall on behalf of a Merced County patient whose license was suspended despite an excellent driving record.
"The new DMV policy is a significant departure from how the agency approached medical marijuana in the past," said Joe Elford, attorney for the advocacy group. "Drivers will no longer have their licenses suspended or revoked simply because of their status as medical marijuana patients."
DMV spokesman Steve Haskins insisted that automatic suspensions have never been the department policy. He said the new manual, issued Feb. 18, merely updated a 2001 document that referred to drivers who used medication but did not mention medical marijuana.
"The policy is and has been that the department treats medical marijuana exactly the same as any other prescription drug," Haskins said.
The manual says DMV hearing officers considering whether to renew or revoke a license should ask medical marijuana patients when and how often they take the drug, and whether they use it before driving. The hearing officers should use the answers to determine whether the patients can drive safely, the manual says.
Elford said that's not how the DMV treated Rose Johnson and at least a half-dozen other medical marijuana patients who called the group's office to complain that their licenses had been yanked for no good reason.
Johnson, who lives in Atwater (Merced County), uses medical marijuana for back and neck pain. When she went to the DMV to renew her license in April 2008, Elford said, a clerk saw her moving slowly because of her injuries and recommended re-evaluation of her license.