IDs for users of marijuana will be offered

August 29, 2005

Karl Fischer, Contra Costa Times

Contra Costa health officials will soon offer an identification card to medical marijuana users to help local law enforcement distinguish them from people illegally carrying the drug.

The Health Services Department "is working on the very early stages of developing this policy," said Francie Wise, director of the county's communicable disease program. "We're going to be talking with all the people involved to make sure that when we issue a card, everyone understands what it is for and what it means."

County officials have not worked out specifics or notified most local law enforcement agencies, but do expect to begin issuing cards within a few months. The program would be similar to those operated by San Francisco and Oakland, Wise said, and would be used only to identify the carrier's legal rights to police.

Wise said she did not know how many county residents would use the program. The Contra Costa Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, is reviewing its arrest and seizure policies.

"As we speak, we are reviewing our policies and procedures regarding medical marijuana in response to concerns expressed by the county health department as well as the district attorney's office," said sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee. "Our goal is to make a policy that is in accordance with state law."

That neatly echoes a policy shift broadcast to Highway Patrol field offices across the state last week from Sacramento. Officers will now accept local identification cards and many other forms of proof that someone uses marijuana legally -- a departure from a more narrow policy that cannabis activists claim violated state law.

"The CHP's reluctance to follow state law was more than just superficial, it was unlawful," said Kris Hermes of Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access. "They had a policy of seizing marijuana that was enforced regardless of whether the patient supplied proper documentation."

The group sued the CHP this year, claiming the agency was the state's most egregious violator of medical marijuana law based on the number of traffic-stop arrests of cannabis patients. The suit remains unresolved but the group heartily approves of the policy change.

The CHP previously accepted cannabis cards from the state Department of Health Services, said Lt. Joe Whiteford, though that agency's relatively new program has only issued a few hundred cards. By contrast, San Francisco has issued more than 8,000.

Questions from officers about how to enforce state law and this summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that federal drug prohibitions still applied in states with medical marijuana laws prompted the Highway Patrol administration to change the policy, Whiteford said.

"We ask our officers to use sound professional judgment. We will ask for information to validate" information on an identification card, doctor's note or other forms of proof, Whiteford said.

Highway Patrol officers still have the legal right to search cars of medical marijuana patients who acknowledge they are carrying the drug, Whiteford said, to verify they are carrying legal quantities.

The CHP will impound an amount larger than 8 ounces regardless of whether the owner carries a cannabis card, and it will wait for a court order to return seized medical marijuana.

Officers will also arrest anyone suspected of driving under the influence or with paraphernalia that appears to be recently used.

Few Contra Costa police agencies have such a succinct medical marijuana policy. The Contra Costa District Attorney's office has seen a drop in police seeking criminal charges against cannabis patients, said District Attorney Robert Kochly.

"Nobody is trying to keep marijuana from people who need it, at least in amounts that are appropriate," Kochly said. "What the Highway Patrol is announcing is not inconsistent with what we would advise our local jurisdictions to do."

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