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Medical pot card fee hike shrinks! $66 fro $142

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Article Last Updated: 03/02/2007 05:01:18 AM PST

Under pressure from state lawmakers and threats of mutiny from some counties, the agency that
oversees the state's medical marijuana identification card program late Wednesday backed off a tenfold increase in its fee for the cards, set to take effect Thursday.

The state Department of Health Services told counties in late December that it would raise its fee for the cards from $13 to $142 beginning Thursday, citing state law that requires the fees to fully cover the cost of the card program.

Counties also charge a fee to process the applications, and most medical marijuana users would have paid around $200 — more than seven times the price of a California driver's license — for simple, laminated cards that must be renewed each year.

In response, some counties threatened to institute local card systems. Among them was San Francisco, by far the leader in state cardholders with more than 3,600. Those departures threatened to gut a state program that has floundered since it began 19 months ago.

The state agency sent after-hours letters Wednesday to each of the 24 counties that participate in the program, saying it would raise the fees instead to a more modest $66, or $33 for Medi-Cal patients, starting April 1.

A spokesman for the agency acknowledged that the county threats influenced the decision.

"This would have devastated the program even further," Mike Bowman said. "We took a hard look. We're trying to balancekeeping the needs of the program consistent with keeping these folks in."

In San Mateo County, the annual identification card fee will be adjusted to $98 effective April 1. Medi-Cal beneficiaries receive a 50 percent discount and will be charged $49 (about 13 percent of the county's card holders qualify).

The county's Health Department, which issues the cards, was quick to point out that the fee hike is entirely the state's doing. The county is not raising its $32 portion of the fee for processing the application.

The county issued 510 cards in fiscal year 2005-06, and predicts that it will issue 480 cards in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to hike the fee to $174, a $129 increase, based on the state's original proposal. However, the lowered hike will not require board approval as the supervisors also voted Tuesday to give the Health Department full authority to adjust rates going forward.

Beverly Thames, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said that the county did not actively lobby the state to temper its rate hike, but there was sentiment that such a significant increase could harm the program.

"It was going to be prohibitively expensive for a lot of people, so there was a lot of concern," Thames said.

Pot advocates feared the higher fees would price many users out of cards designed to shield them from arrest or seizure of their marijuana under Proposition 215, the 1996 state ballot measure that legalized pot for medical uses.

One state lawmaker who pressured the agency claimed victory, but also cautioned that the state program faces obstacles. State law requires all counties to participate in the program, but still 34 counties remain no-shows, including some of the state's largest.

Los Angeles County was key to swaying the state agency to reduce the fee increases, said Assemblyman Mark Leno,

D-San Francisco. Los Angeles plans to launch its program by June 1. That alone could bring in some 8,000 applicants, nearly doubling the number of state cardholders.

"That will exponentially increase the number of participants," Leno said. "We were very certain the $142 could be the last straw, the death knell. Now full implementation of the program is very possible."

State health officials had argued that the tenfold fee increase was needed to keep the program afloat, saying demand for the cards lagged far behind what officials expected, largely because so many counties failed to come on board. Some counties, led by San Diego, have waged a legal battle to opt out of the state card program.

The state agency had expected more than 100,000 card holders, with all counties participating. As of Feb. 5, they had issued fewer than 9,500 cards total.

State officials said the fee increase would make the program solvent and help the agency start paying off a $1.5 million startup loan from another state health fund. Its budget for the current fiscal year is $852,000, down from $1.2 million last year. Along with issuing the cards, the state runs a database that police or pot clubs can use to verify them.

But internal e-mails and budget documents show that officials with the state agency never considered whether the tenfold fee increase would price out many medical pot users and gut the state program, instead of rescuing it.

The documents, which MediaNews obtained through a state Public Records Act request, show that state health services officials were most concerned with getting the program in the black for the coming fiscal year, and considered a fee as high as $250 before settling on $142.

Their calculations ignored a likely rise in revenue as new counties joined the program, the documents show.

Even without them, the agency expected to build a nearly $1.4 million surplus from the fees over five years — enough to run the program for nearly three years, the documents show.

E-mails show that agency officials were loath to share their calculations with county health officials. In one exchange in January, a top state health official derided a county employee who had requested a written justification for the new fee to show her Board of Supervisors.

"The lady's out of line and her tone has it all wrong!" wrote Nancy Hayward, chief of the state Office of County Health Services. Hayward directed another state official to "draft a very general response," and later: "If she doesn't like general answers, then oh so sad."

By law, medical marijuana patients need only a doctor's note, but pot advocates say law enforcement agencies more clearly recognize a "hands-off" policy toward cardholders. Also, San Francisco's policy on pot clubs requires them to accept only patients with cards.

"If you want to know why people want to have an ID card, it's so they can go into a cannabis club and lay down a card so they're instantly recognized," said Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

"People like that."

Source: insidebayarea.com
Author: John Simerman at (925) 943-8072 or e-mail jsimerman@cctimes.com.
Copyright: 2006 Media News Group
Website: Inside Bay Area - Medical pot card fee hike shrinks
Contact: John @ jsimerman@cctimes.com
__________________
Staff writer Rebekah Gordon contributed to this report.

:3: :peace:
 

Pinch

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By law, medical marijuana patients need only a doctor's note, but pot advocates say law enforcement agencies more clearly recognize a "hands-off" policy toward cardholders. Also, San Francisco's policy on pot clubs requires them to accept only patients with cards.

The SF MCDs I've been to lately readily accept OCBC cards as I am sure they do the State MM ID. Now with a Doctor's Rec, one should call the club first, sometimes they'll make arrangements to verify your Rec over the phone before you visit, fax it ahead of time or mail copy with phone number. It will not present a hassle for future visits.

I think these rumors of SF MCDs are greatly exaggerated.

Medical pot card fee hike shrinks! $66 from $142 is the best news.

:3: :peace:
 
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