With a pair of county supervisors in favor of implementing a medical marijuana ID program and two more proposing a deferral, county board chairman Katcho Achadjian cast the deciding vote to provide long-awaited San Luis Obispo County validation to the 1996 Compassionate Use Act.
That piece of legislation, along with the subsequent Senate Bill 420, set a vague system of guidelines for the use of medicinal marijuana. Each county bears the responsibility of officiating the pharmaceutical flow within its borders.
Sound simple? Think again. In many ways, it frequently proves the most complicated pharmaceutical legislation on the state record.
The law's conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act regularly triggers confusion among local law enforcement and county governments. In the decade since the original policy broke out of Sacramento and hit the streets, only 20 counties out of 58 have passed ID card programs to officially register patients as valid recipients of the medicine that state law entitles them.
In this county, the contradiction sometimes prompted police to confiscate marijuana as contraband and refuse to return it even after possession charges dissipated. Police have claimed that to comply with the Compassionate Use Act and return the property constitutes distribution under federal law. Such situations typically arise when a discrepancy exists between what patients and law enforcement officials view as proper documentation of a medical need for the marijuana.
The county courts recently declined a request to return marijuana seized from Arroyo Grande resident Kenneth Parson during a routine traffic stop in Grover Beach. Prosecutors dropped misdemeanor possession charges against him.
"This is a totally ridiculous situation," said North Coast supervisor Shirley Bianchi, who led the argument to approve the program now. "When facing a contradiction like this, the answer is to take the compassionate way out."
The ID card system provides county-sanctioned proof to patients verifiable by police with a simple call to the registry. In accordance with patient privacy laws, county staff reported, a bare minimum of information will be retained by the county to prevent the same patient from abusing the system by attaining multiple cards. Achadjian suggested taking the fingerprints of registered patients a concept shot down by county counsel.
Supervisors Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt proposed holding off the program until the attorney general emerging from the Nov. 7 election offers a statement on the matter, or the decision arrives regarding a lawsuit by San Diego County challenging the state law. Neither situation promises a quick resolution or offers a definitive timetable for one. Lenthall suggested waiting six months before reexamining the matter.
"I don't see a compelling urgency to implement this program," Lenthall said.
He and Ovitt went on to argue that the county should, ideally, hold for dual solvency with the still-conflicting state and federal laws before moving on the program.
Bianchi responded that stalling the program would prevent responsible patients, fearful of police or DEA retribution, from seeking the medicine they need. County counsel added that SB420 mandated the eventual implementation of such a program, though no timetable exists.
"We can't decide as a county to comply with one state law and not another," county attorney James Lindholm opined.
Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers operator Charles C. Lynch and Santa Rosa lobbyist Aaron Smith pushed supervisors to drop the staff's recommendation of limiting card-carrying patients to 10 per primary caregiver. Lynch also suggested that the board increase the possession limit slightly beyond the state-mandated minimum to one pound of dried cannabis, and 12 mature and 24 immature plants.
The board passed the program with all of the staff's recommendations.