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Merced County Will Issue Medical Marijuana Cards


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Merced County will begin issuing identification cards for medical marijuana users after a state judge recently rejected its challenge to California's medical marijuana law.

The Board of Supervisors announced the decision Tuesday, saying the county would not appeal the week-old ruling.

"After reviewing a number of options and having received the ruling from the court, we are now positioned to move forward with the implementation of (a medical marijuana identification card) program," board chairman Mike Nelson said.

John Volanti, the county's director of public health, said the county will likely begin issuing the cards by February.

To get a card, county residents will be required to submit an application and a prescription for the drug, Volanti said.

The county will verify the prescription, take a digital photo of the applicant and mail the applicant's information to the state. The state's health department will issue the card.

Volanti said the cost of the card program will be covered by those who participate. The county has yet to set its per-card fee, but Volanti said it will be similar to fees in other counties.

In San Francisco County, for example, a card costs $50.

Merced will be the 25th of California's 58 counties to begin issuing medicinal marijuana identification cards, as required by a 2003 state law that clarifies Proposition 215.

California voters became the first in the country to legalize medicinal marijuana when they passed the proposition in 1996. Since then, 10 states have followed.

Medical marijuana advocate Aaron Smith, of Safe Access Now, praised the county's decision to begin issuing cards.

"People who are sick and dying shouldn't have to worry about getting arrested simply for having the medicine a doctor has prescribed them," Smith said. "We're still not sure why the county needed to go to court to understand that this is the law."

The county joined the lawsuit, brought by San Diego County, earlier this year after repeated pleas from Merced resident Grant Wilson to begin issuing the cards.

Wilson, who suffers from Hepatitis C, was arrested last year after police discovered pot plants growing in his home.

"I just don't want to be arrested again," Wilson said Thursday. "I hope the county actually follows through with this.

"I don't want anyone else to have to go through all this just to have their medicine."

Members of the board said when the county joined the suit that they weren't necessarily seeking to overturn the state law. Rather, the board said it only sought guidance as to which law -- state or federal -- it should follow.

The counties argued that because federal law prohibits all uses of marijuana, counties shouldn't be held to state laws requiring them to accommodate medical marijuana users.

San Diego Superior Court Judge William R. Nevitt Jr. upheld the state's law, ruling that counties would not be breaking federal law by issuing the cards.

The board initially indicated it might appeal the ruling, saying it "didn't fully address" whether the county should comply with state or federal marijuana laws.

County attorney James Fincher said the county decided not to appeal the ruling after San Diego County announced it would.

If San Diego's appeal is successful, the ruling will apply to all California counties, regardless of Merced County's involvement.

But that outcome is unlikely, Fincher said.

"It's a rarity for an appellate court to overrule a lower court's ruling," he said. "... As it stands now, the law says we have to implement the (identification card) program.

"Rather than spend more money in court, we're implementing the program."

Fincher said the county spent about $1,000 on the initial lawsuit.

He added that private citizens and advocacy groups have threatened to sue the county if it didn't begin issuing the cards.

Even after the county begins issuing them, identification cards won't be mandatory for medicinal marijuana users.

Those who have a valid prescription and are complying with the state's possession limits -- eight ounces of usable marijuana and six mature plants per patient -- shouldn't have trouble with the law.

Still, county law enforcement officials say they hope local medicinal marijuana users will get a card to make it easier to determine who is using the drug legally.

"For people with a real medical need who are following the law, I hope they'll get a card," said District Attorney Larry Morse II. "That makes it easier for everyone -- both for users and for law enforcement."

But both Morse and officials with the sheriff's department say they're still looking for more clarification on medicinal marijuana laws.

All marijuana users can still be prosecuted under federal law.

Morse said local law enforcement officials are currently abiding by state law. He said when a medical-use claim comes into question, the District Attorney's Office either prosecutes the case or refers it to federal prosecutors.

In November, Merced resident Dustin Costa -- also known as Rev. D.C. Greenhouse -- became the first person in three years to be prosecuted under federal drug laws, claiming medicinal use.

Costa was convicted for growing and selling marijuana, and could face a life prison sentence.

Newshawk: User - 420 Magazine
Source: Merced Sun Star
Pubdate: 16 December 2006
Author: Corinne Reilly
Copyright: 2006 Merced Sun Star
Contact: creilly@mercedsun-star.com
Website: Breaking News, Sports, Weather & More | MercedSunStar.com & The Merced Sun-Star
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