Medical marijuana use no longer means automatic license suspension

March 04, 2009

Jessie Faulkner, Times-Standard

The use of medical marijuana can no longer be the sole grounds for losing driving privileges.

In a policy revision -- or clarification, depending upon who you speak with -- the state Department of Motor Vehicles has determined, in writing, that the use of medical marijuana prescribed by a physician is to be treated the same as any other prescription medication that may affect safe driving.

The update came about after the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) filed suit on behalf of a 53-year-old Atwater woman who lost her driver's license due to her use of medical marijuana.

”Despite Ms. [Rose] Johnson's clean driving record, not having caused an accident in 37 years of driving, the DMV revoked her license on July 26, 2008,” according to the Americans for Safe Access' announcement.

The specific DMV language, according to the ASA, cited Johnson's addiction to or habitual use of a drug preventing her from safely operating a vehicle.

Prior to the case going to trial, the DMV added the change to its Driver Safety Procedure Manual and reinstated Johnson's driving privileges, according to the ASA.

”The new DMV policy is a significant departure from how the agency approached medical marijuana in the past,” ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford said. “Drivers no longer have their licenses suspended or revoked simply because of their status as medical marijuana patients.”

DMV Information Officer Armando Botello said the agency has had the policy, but only now has put it in writing. Specifically, medical marijuana has been added, in writing, to the general class of prescription drugs that may affect driving, but do not warrant a suspension or revocation of driving privileges on their own.

Americans for Safe Access media liaison Kris Hermes disputes that noting the number of medical marijuana patients whose licenses have been revoked or suspended because they had medical marijuana prescriptions continued in recent years.

”Advocates assert that the DMV policy of suspending and revoking the licenses of medical marijuana patients was widespread, occurring in at least eight California counties, including Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Glenn, Merced, Placer, Sacramento and Sonoma,” according to the Americans for Safe Access news release.

The employees of the Eureka DMV office said they are prohibited from speaking with the media, and Bortello said the agency's classification of reasons behind license suspensions or revocations isn't tracked by something as specific as being medical marijuana patients.

The cases are referred to regionally based hearing officers, he said, who receive lots and lots of cases.

”Medical marijuana might be one of hundreds,” Bortello said.

Hermes said Wednesday in a teleconference that the issue has nothing to do with driving under the influence -- both Johnson and an earlier patient whose license was suspended did not drive while using medical marijuana or under its influence.

”It's still a crime to drive under the influence of marijuana,” ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford said. Elford represented Johnson in the group's lawsuit.

Instead, the issue was the DMV's policy to revoke or suspend the licenses of medical marijuana patients solely on the basis of being medical marijuana patients.

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