Medical pot advocate sees act of 'retaliation'

December 21, 2004

Ed Fletcher, Sacramento Bee

Calling it an act of 'retaliation,' a nationally recognized medical marijuana advocate says she's being forced to prove to California officials that she should still be allowed to drive.

Diane Monson, one of two Northern Californians testing the federal government's strict stance against medical pot in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, received a Dec. 6 notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles requiring a review of her driving qualifications 'in the interest of your personal safety and the safety of others using the highways.

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By late Tuesday, however, the department changed its tune, indefinitely postponing a hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday.

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'Upon being alerted by the news media to the situation involving Diane Monson, high-ranking DMV officials acted immediately to postpone the Thursday driver safety hearing, pending a thorough internal review to determine all the circumstances surrounding this matter,' DMV spokesman Bill Branch said in a prepared statement.

Monson's attorney, David Michael, applauded the news. 'What the DMV did was the right thing,' he said.

Without the media attention, he said, his client 'would have been stuck in a bureaucratic morass.'

Michael questioned the re-examination process and wondered if there were others whose driving qualifications were being questioned quietly.

'I don't know who else is being subjected to these types of hearings,' Michael said.

Re-examinations are typically triggered by questions from a family member, doctor or traffic officer about someone's driving ability, but DMV spokesman Steve Haskins said that with the form available online, it could have been initiated by anyone.

'Anybody could have reported her for any number of reasons,' Haskins said. 'We have a responsibility to look into these reports to make sure people are driving safely.'

In the 2002-03 fiscal year, 67,992 of the state's more than 22.5 million drivers were required to undergo re-examinations, Haskins said, and of those, 9,636 drivers had their driving privileges revoked.

Monson, an Oroville resident who uses marijuana three or four times a day to ease back pain and spasms, said she had no idea who started the process.

She has a clean driving record, according to state records, and she could offer no explanation for the re-examination letter other than her notoriety as a medical marijuana user.

'I feel somewhat that this is a retaliation for my status as a medical marijuana user,' Monson told reporters at a news conference on the Capitol steps.

Just days before the notice of reexamination arrived in the mail, Monson noted that she received her renewed license - good though 2010.

Michael wondered aloud how the safety hearing would be conducted, should the process go forward.

If Monson was identified because of her back problems, how many other Californians would fit the same criteria, he wondered? Would a doctor decide if she's in too much pain to drive? If her marijuana use triggered the notice, he asked, should people on prescription painkillers have to surrender their driving privileges?

Monson said she never drives while impaired.

The state has no legal impairment or intoxication standard similar to the 0.8 percent blood-alcohol threshold. Impairment would have to be proved by a field sobriety test, said Tom Marshall, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

Monson and Angel McClary Raich are challenging the federal government's authority to regulate the noncommercial growing and use of marijuana for personal medical purposes in a state that authorizes it.

Raich does not drive, but Monson said that living some 15 miles out of town - the last three on a steep gravel switchback road - she couldn't get along without driving.

She said she regularly drives her Subaru Outback to meet her accounting clients, or to go to the bank or her rental homes.

'It would truly devastate my life,' she said.



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