Membership has its perks--and perils--when it comes to medical marijuana
By Chip McAuley
Beginning in October, when medical marijuana smokers get carded by state and local law enforcement, they won't be arrested. It's all part of a new state-sanctioned pot card program through the Sonoma County Health Department. However, dope smokers can still expect to get thrown away by federal officials who refuse to acknowledge California's Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, that allows folks to put it in their pipe and smoke it--for medical reasons. The card program seems apt to fuel the flames of the ongoing controversy that has plagued the medicinal marijuana movement.
With legal issues still hampering full implementation of marijuana-as-medicine, it remains unclear how many of an estimated 3,000 Sonoma County residents will actually sign up for the voluntary program--a program that brings with it the threat of exposing users to both the feds and their neighbors.
According to county officials, federal authorities would need a court order to access the confidential information. Deputy health officer Leigh Hall says the program will go before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in September before its likely implementation.
"There is no real way for public health officials to track the number of medicinal marijuana users," says Hall. "This is the first time such a system will be in place. It's voluntary. It's also scary for some people. Even with the federal issues, some people still may not want to use the program. However, we will be providing state-mandated cards for people who are interested."
The local program will mirror a pot card program that started earlier this year in Mendocino County.
Indeed, pot-friendly Mendocino County first implemented a medicinal cannabis program through the sheriff's department after the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, touting approximately 1,200 registered users. Intended to replace the system through the sheriff's department, with its inference of discipline, a new program started in May through the Mendocino County Public Health Department and has issued 60 cards to date.
"It's a little too early to tell if the program's been successful," says Dan Taylor, assistant director of public health for Mendocino County. "Sure, there are potential applicants who have concerns about issues surrounding federal laws, but it's important to remember that the card is optional."
While the sheriff's department will no longer issue cards, the old IDs are good through December 2006--but only in Mendocino County.
In Sonoma County, supervisors are still waiting for their official briefing on the program. Second District supervisor Mike Kerns says the medicinal marijuana card program sounded like a "good idea."
Kerns, a former police sergeant for the City of Petaluma, says the initial passage of Proposition 215 was problematic for law enforcement. "When Proposition 215 passed, there were few guidelines on how such a system would work. This new ID program seems like a step in the right direction to enable those patients who need it to use it in a legal manner," says Kerns.
"Some people may be reluctant to sign up for the program because it is still against federal law," he adds.
"We're definitely going to take permission slips from doctors," says Santa Rosa mayor Jane Bender. "I think we need to work in concert with the county and other municipalities on the card program as well. Having a unified voice will be important."
This latest progress toward mainstreaming marijuana-as-medicine comes after years of effort by local cannabis clubs to legitimize themselves and their missions in the face of antidrug opposition and the erroneous belief that clubs proliferate weed for nonmedical uses--claims that have never been substantiated.
The drug has been indicated in the treatment of AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and chronic pain, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
"We look forward to a time when patients can obtain marijuana in a safe and affordable manner without fear of threat of prosecution by the federal government," say representatives of the Sonoma Alliance for Medicinal Marijuana on its website (www.samm.net).
"We're all for the state card. If the county decides to go with the program, we support it," says the founder of Marvin's Gardens, a cannabis club in Guerneville who wished, for legal reasons, to remain anonymous.
"It's going to be a mixed bag," says Doc Knapp, spokesperson for SAMM, about local response to the program. On balance, Knapp expects the results to be positive and to encounter no interference from the DEA, which already has lists of many medicinal marijuana users. Having spoken with business leaders and elected officials, Knapp says that he doubts if SAMM will participate in the program. In fact, large groups of people, including teachers, nurses and others, he says, may feel vulnerable about having information about medicinal marijuana use on record in addition to high-profile locals.
As long as the feds are kept at bay, membership in the pot card program will definitely have its privileges.
From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.