U.S. Supreme Court lets medical pot law stand

May 17, 2009

Josh Richman, Oakland Tribune

The U.S. Supreme Court has killed a lawsuit that sought to challenge the validity of one of California's key medical marijuana laws.

By refusing Monday to review the lawsuit brought in 2006 by San Diego County and later joined by San Bernardino County, the court let stand the state law requiring counties to issue identification cards to qualified medical-marijuana patients. The ID card program was adopted in 2004 under SB 420, the Medical Marijuana Program Act; the cards are meant to protect patients by helping law enforcement officers discern protected medical marijuana use from illicit recreational use.

The counties had claimed they didn't have to comply because the state law was pre-empted by the federal ban on marijuana. But a San Diego Superior Court judge and the California Court of Appeal ruled against them, and the California Supreme Court had refused to review the case; the national highest court's review was their final venue. Several other counties — Colusa, Madera, Mariposa, Modoc, Mono, Solano, Stanislaus, and Sutter — had declined to issue the cards pending the lawsuit's final outcome.

"No longer will local officials be able to hide behind federal law and resist upholding California's medical marijuana law," said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group which represented patients in this lawsuit. "The courts have made clear that federal law does not pre-empt California's medical marijuana law and that local officials must comply with that law."

Aaron Smith, the Marijuana Policy Project's California policy director, said it's "time for San Diego and San Bernardino Counties to end their war on the sick and obey the law. And taxpayers should hold to account the irresponsible officials who wasted their tax dollars on frivolous litigation."

San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob said she's "disappointed the Court did not take our case, but I am respectful of the Court's decision. We were seeking a definitive ruling, in writing, that would resolve the conflict between state and federal law. In my opinion, there remains a gray area that will continue to pose challenges for law enforcement and users."

But San Diego County officials said supervisors as soon as June 16 might consider a staff recommendation for implementing the ID card program.

Patients choosing to take part in the ID card program must apply for a new card with a doctor's recommendation each year. Alameda County Public Health officials report having issued 2,408 medical marijuana patient ID cards from when the program began in August 2006 through the end of March; Contra Costa County had issued an estimated 400 by the end of 2008.

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