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Foes Protest Limits on Medical Pot

Measure signed by Gov. Davis will restrict the amount of marijuana that patients can possess and allow for a voluntary ID system.

October 14, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A rift within the medical marijuana movement widened Monday over a measure signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis that for the first time establishes the amount of cannabis a patient can possess and sets up voluntary patient identification cards.

The bill by state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) limits a patient or caregiver to half a pound of dried marijuana and six mature or 12 immature plants, though it leaves room for physicians to recommend more and permits cities or counties to allow higher amounts.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, has angered some of the medical cannabis movement's most passionate activists, who believe it rewrites Proposition 215. The 1996 medical marijuana ballot measure did not set limits on how much a patient can possess.

Bill Panzer, an Oakland attorney who helped draft Proposition 215, called the Vasconcellos legislation an "anti-medical marijuana law" that will tread on the doctor-patient relationship, put an unrealistic limit on some patients most in need and embolden narcotics officers who might make more arrests in some parts of the state.

"Patients don't need protection in San Francisco, they need protection in places like Bakersfield and Fresno," Panzer said. "This is only going to cause more arrests in spots like those."

The more moderate wing of the medical marijuana movement has thrown its weight behind the new law, saying it settles some of the problems that have bedeviled the state since passage of Proposition 215.

In particular, they applauded the introduction of an identification card system, which will provide photo documentation so patients can avoid arrest if confronted by a police officer.

"Local cops will be able to tell bona fide patients from illegal, so-called recreational, users," said Glenn Backes of Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug policy reform group. "Think what that means for potential patients: They no longer have to worry that following their doctor's recommendation will land them in jail."

In some parts of California, police and prosecutors have tended to take a zero-tolerance stance on medical marijuana, which can be used to combat AIDS wasting, nausea from cancer chemotherapy, glaucoma and other illnesses. Elsewhere, law enforcement leaders have consistently complained that their officers have a hard time distinguishing between patients and recreational users.

The law's backers contend the new possession limits are more a floor than a ceiling and could be shifted upward if evidence is found to support higher levels. In addition, they note that the law allows local municipalities the right to establish higher limits. Doctors also can recommend that patients grow and possess more marijuana if their medical condition so dictates.

Vasconcellos, who could not be reached for comment Monday, has called the measure the most carefully negotiated bill he has worked on in nearly four decades as a state lawmaker. For several sessions the veteran lawmaker has been trying to settle the dizzying array of conflicts over Proposition 215. Last year, a similar bill made it to the governor's desk, but it was rejected.

Several hard-core medical cannabis activists wrote Davis asking for another veto.

Steve Kubby, national director of the American Medical Marijuana Assn., Monday called the new Vasconcellos law "a disaster."

"A lot of people who are completely legal today are going to be criminals after Jan. 1," he said.

Kubby, who smokes a dozen marijuana cigarettes a day to offset the effects of adrenal cancer, said a prolific indoor garden with six plants can produce less than a pound of marijuana a year. That's enough for about one cigarette a day, he said.

Doctors, meanwhile, have grown more reluctant to wade into an area of horticulture and drug policy fraught with problems. Several physicians are under scrutiny by the state medical board over marijuana recommendations. In that chilled atmosphere, Kubby said, doctors would be reluctant to recommend higher use for fear of running afoul of authorities.

Initial drafts of the bill called for a study by the state Health Department to scientifically determine how much pot is enough for patients. But health officials said they had no experience conducting such research and predicted it would be costly.

Vasconcellos countered with a possession limit. Initially, there was talk of a 99-plant limit, but that level was slashed after law enforcement officials complained it was too high.

Even with the lower possession cap, the California Narcotics Officers Assn. staunchly opposed the bill this year. Officials with the group said they wanted a mandatory card system to better identify patients.

Backers of the bill said the ID program had been made voluntary because they remain fearful that U.S. drug agents could seize a state patient registry and use it as a hit list for arrests.

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