A medical marijuana identification card program will come before the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors sometime in the next few months. It's a program that has been in the works for more than 2½ years.
Stanislaus is one of just 12 of the state's 58 counties that does not already have an identification card program, which is required by state law. The programs issue identification cards to medical marijuana users who ask for them. The cards can then be shown to law enforcement officers when patients are stopped and questioned about possession of the drug.
The cards, like the whole issue of medical marijuana, have been controversial. Two years ago, then-Stanislaus County Supervisor Ray Simon called the program "a huge fraud perpetrated on us by the state of California." Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden also criticized the program, saying it should go through a formal U.S. Food and Drug Administration trial and be dispensed by prescription through pharmaceutical companies.
Proponents, however, point out that medical marijuana use was approved by the state's voters in 1996 in Proposition 215. The federal government still considers any marijuana use to be illegal, but proponents of Proposition 215 point out that issuing the ID cards violates neither state nor federal law -- and not issuing them would violate state law.
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Stanislaus and several other counties delayed issuing the cards while legal challenges played out. Now that the ID cards have cleared legal hurdles, most counties have launched programs. San Joaquin County announced its card program last week.
The Stanislaus ID card program is under review to make sure it complies with state law, said Deputy County Counsel Dean Wright. The program will require the county to acquire camera equipment to take pictures of applicants, along with paperwork to ensure that the applicants have a doctor's recommendation. The information would then be forwarded to Sacramento, where the cards will be issued.
Some of the delay in getting the program before the Board of Supervisors has been caused by the small staff in the California Department of Public Health dedicated to overseeing the program, Wright said.
When it gets on the supervisors' agenda is still in question, because the county is wrestling with midyear budget adjustments, said Cleopathia Moore, associate director of the county Health Services Agency, which will administer the program.
The cards are completely voluntary -- medical marijuana users don't have to get them in order to comply with the state law. The cards in theory will prevent them from being arrested if police officers find them in possession of marijuana.
When the medical ID card program comes before the board, members will be faced with a decision to approve or reject a specific program. Rejecting the idea of an ID program carries a legal risk: Solano County was sued last week by Americans for Safe Access for failing to implement a card program.
Most dispensaries banned
In the meantime, the medical marijuana environment in California and the Northern San Joaquin Valley continues to evolve. Most of the cities in the northern valley have banned marijuana dispensaries. That leaves patients with a doctor's recommendation a choice of either driving to the Bay Area, where there are many dispensaries; seeking the drug in the underground illegal market; or growing their own, which is allowed by law in limited quantities.
Medical marijuana advocates say most patients don't want to grow their own. It takes time and some expertise, as well as a place to grow it, said Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Driving to the Bay Area is also inconvenient if not impossible for some patients, Smith said. Some patients are undergoing chemotherapy and are physically unable to cultivate plants or drive for hours to get marijuana, he said.
Sources will deliver
"Many are going into the black market. It's readily available in the black market, but part of the intent of Prop. 215 was that they not have to go to the black market," Smith said.
"They are pushing the market into the dark corners of society instead of open, licensed and inspected dispensaries."
The Web site of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, another marijuana advocacy group, lists several sources that will deliver marijuana to the Modesto area, but the group doesn't vouch for the reliability of the sources, said Ellen Comp, a board member and volunteer for California NORML.
Doctors are more willing to recommend marijuana to patients since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it was a First Amendment right of doctors to make recommendations, Smith and Comp said.
In Modesto, a MediCann clinic at 725 18th St. provides patient evaluations and marijuana recommendations. MediCann is a San Francisco-based group with 12 clinics throughout the state dedicated to helping patients with medical marijuana referrals and other alternative medical treatments.