Accord Sought in Medical Marijuana Fight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A committee of cops, medical marijuana advocates and doctors has recommended that California establish a voluntary registry of medical marijuana patients to protect users from arrest.

The Medical Marijuana Task force, appointed in March by state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, also has recommended that the state develop regulations to allow groups of patients and caregivers to grow marijuana.

The proposals, if made law, would represent an about-face from the policies of former Gov. Pete Wilson. Wilson's attorney general, Dan Lungren, maintained that Proposition 215, passed by voters in November 1996, allowed only individual patients to grow marijuana and to use the medical marijuana law as a defense if prosecuted.

Photo Identification Cards Proposed

State regulation of marijuana cooperatives would allow clubs now operating underground in Humboldt, Mendocino, Marin, San Francisco, Alameda, San Diego and Santa Cruz counties to function openly, said task force members and other medical marijuana advocates.

"Some clubs, at least, will apply under these guidelines," said Dale Gieringer, an author of Proposition 215 and a spokesman for the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which lobbies for the legalization of marijuana.

The statewide registry would make enforcement uniform, with patients issued photo identification cards that all the state's law enforcement agencies would honor.

"Hopefully, this would be establishing a basic bright line for law enforcement in terms of identifying qualified patients so that they can then leave them alone," said Scott Imler, director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood.

Several task force participants said the proposals represent a remarkable degree of consensus achieved by representatives of groups that have long been at loggerheads over the medical marijuana issue.

"We've accomplished much more than I believed was possible," said Tiburon Police Chief Pete Herley, who also represented the California Police Chiefs Assn. on the committee. "I worked with people I would never have expected to come into contact with."

But some participants, including the California Peace Officers Assn., said they are still seeking changes by Lockyer to the committee's final document before deciding whether to support it.

"The whole idea of having a Proposition 215 that violates federal law is a difficult dilemma for us," said Robert Elsberg, the peace officers' representative on the task force. "The citizens of California want marijuana to be made available, and the federal government says it is a controlled substance."

Proposition 215 was supposed to end the prosecution of patients who could produce a doctor's recommendation that they use medical marijuana to treat a variety of serious illnesses, including AIDS and cancer. Instead, a patient's chances of being arrested and prosecuted for using medical marijuana depend largely on where the patient happens to live or travel.

In Mendocino County, a user can apply to the county health department for an identity card and expect to be unmolested by local deputies if in possession of up to six marijuana plants and two pounds of marijuana. But even patients carrying a Mendocino identity card have no guarantee against arrest in the many other counties that interpret the law as merely a defense a patient may use after being brought to court on charges of growing, buying or possessing marijuana.

Lockyer asked the 30-member task force, balanced between Proposition 215 supporters and opponents, to make the law work. That group, which included organizations as diverse as the California Narcotics Officers Assn. and marijuana club operators, agreed on the registry in June, after a series of closed-door meetings, with the caveat that some members would have to get their organizations to sign off on the plan before publicly supporting it.

The task force's recommendations have not yet been released, and some of the wording is still being reviewed by organizations represented on the committee.

'Treats Marijuana Like Heroin'

But some medical marijuana supporters and AIDS activists have already raised concerns about a registry.

"This is unprecedented," said Dennis Peron, chief author of Proposition 215, whose San Francisco medical marijuana club was closed by a federal court in 1998. "Registering cancer patients? For what? This is treating marijuana as though it were heroin." The law, Peron insisted, "is working. They are just doing this to appease the cops."

A copy of the text agreed to by committee members at their last meeting was obtained by The Times. The 16-page document, drafted as an Assembly bill, would have patients submit their doctor's recommendations and an application to their local county health department, along with an as-yet unspecified fee.

In return, patients would receive an identity card, which would include a 24-hour 800 telephone number that officers could call to verify the card's validity. People identified as primary caregivers to medical marijuana users would also have the right to carry the identity card. The card would be renewed annually.

A similar system exists in Oregon, where patients must pay $150 to register with the state.

State Sen. John Vasconcellos hopes to introduce an Assembly bill this month to establish the statewide registry. The bill would leave it to the Department of Health Services to determine, through public hearings and consultations with experts, what constitutes a reasonable amount of marijuana for a medical user to possess at any one time.

"We feel very confident that this is a very solid product," said Rand Martin, a Vasconcellos aide who attended committee meetings. Martin declined to discuss particulars of the proposals, which he said Vasconcellos and Lockyer hope to unveil in the next two weeks.

The task force also calls for the Department of Health Services to issue emergency regulations, "after public comment and consultation with interested organizations," specifying the amount of marijuana a patient may legally possess--something that was not included in Proposition 215.

It is unclear what reception the registry proposal will receive from state legislators or from Gov. Gray Davis, who opposed Proposition 215 in 1996, but who has said nothing publicly about Lockyer's task force.

Michael Bustamante, spokesman for the governor, said that Davis has taken no position on the issue because no bill has yet been offered.

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