Medical marijuana: moving forward

June 16, 2004

EDITORIAL, Long Beach Press-Telegram

We commend the Long Beach City Council's push toward a prompt change in the police department's policy on medical marijuana. A change is long overdue.

In an editorial Tuesday we encouraged the council to form a task force that could study the issue and recommend guidelines for patients who legally use marijuana as medicine, as San Diego has done. But if the council can adopt a sound policy change more quickly without a task force, that's even better.

Long Beach will find that San Diego has already done much work in this area. The city's task force met for nearly two years on the medical marijuana issue, conferring with patients, public policy experts, district attorneys, law enforcement officials, and many others. The task force also conducted a survey of doctors on possible approaches to regulating medical marijuana in accordance with the voter-approved state law, Proposition 215.

The policy ultimately adopted by the San Diego City Council was immensely sensible.

The cornerstone of the plan is an ID card for patients, to be issued by the city upon confirmed proof that the patient has been authorized by a doctor to use marijuana for medical purposes. Patients' names and addresses would be placed into a registry so officers could immediately verify a patient's claim at any hour. Patients would be required to renew the cards every two years.

San Diego's adopted guidelines allow patients to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for medical use, and caregivers (which are also narrowly and carefully defined and regulated) can possess up to two ounces. Patients are allowed to grow up to 24 plants indoors, but cannot grow them outdoors.

As Long Beach Deputy Police Chief Robert Luna said at Tuesday's council meeting, police officers on the street have a hard time differentiating between patients who have the right to use marijuana legally and those possessing it illegally. That's exactly why an ID card is needed. Officers in the field shouldn't have to assess the validity of a doctor's note or try to subjectively decide whether or not someone is sick.

A carefully regulated identification card would solve that problem, and parameters on possession and cultivation would let patients know exactly how much they can grow and store in their homes.

The current police policy, which calls for officers to arrest anyone caught with pot and let the courts sort it out, is unacceptable. Because of it, sick and elderly patients legally using marijuana under state law have been subjected to humiliating, stressful and costly arrests and trials. The policy also places an unnecessary burden on the police and judicial systems.

Council members Dan Baker and Val Lerch deserve credit for bringing this important issue from a citizens' advisory group to the council, and helping to move it forward in a timely manner. Baker's request, which was met with unanimous council approval Tuesday, ordered the police department and city officials to return in September with a policy change that upholds state law.

In September, the council must ensure that Long Beach's medical marijuana patients no longer have to live in fear of arrest and prosecution. There is no humane or remotely logical reason for this unfortunate situation to continue.

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