Pubdate: Sun, 25 Mar 2012
Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)
Copyright: 2012 Associated Press
Author: Lisa Leff, Associated Press


No One Knows How Many in the State Use Medical Marijuana, but New 
Legislation Might Change That

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - California has seven times as many residents as 
Colorado, but nearly nine times fewer medical marijuana users, at 
least on paper.

And as far as record-keepers know, the most populous state, home to 
the nation's first and most liberal medical marijuana laws, also has 
a smaller number of pot patients than Arizona, Hawaii, Michigan, 
Montana and Oregon.

If those statistics look offkilter, they should. The reality is that 
no one knows how many people are legally using marijuana in 
California because the state - with hundreds of pot stores and 
clinics that issue medical marijuana recommendations - does not 
require residents to register as patients. Of the 16 states that 
allow the medicinal use of cannabis, it is one of only three without 
such a requirement.

Now, with California's medical marijuana industry laboring under a 
renewed federal crackdown that has forced many storefront 
dispensaries to close, a state lawmaker has recently introduced 
legislation that, if passed, would give authorities a much clearer 
count of the drug's bona fide consumer base.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, a San Jose Democrat, the bill 
would require anyone who wants to claim a legal right to use 
marijuana for health reasons to apply for a county-issued 
identification card. Marijuana patients also would have to say if 
they plan to grow their own pot or to purchase it from a patient 
collective, and name the collective.

The changes are designed to make it easier for police and sheriff's 
deputies to identify who can legally consume and grow marijuana and 
who is using medical marijuana laws as a cover for illegal drug 
possession or dealing, said Randy Perry, the Peace Officers Research 
Association of California lobbyist who wrote the bill.

"We are not saying people shouldn't be smoking it or eating it. The 
people have spoken, and that's legal," Perry said. "We are simply 
trying to organize it a little bit so our law enforcement officers 
won't have to arrest people who can legally have it and won't have to 
confiscate their legally grown marijuana plants when there is a lot 
of crime and a lot of criminals they need to be going after."

California already has a state-run medical marijuana patient database 
and program under which counties are required to issue ID cards to 
eligible patients. The program was adopted by lawmakers in 2003 as a 
way to protect legitimate medical patients from arrest when caught 
with marijuana in their cars. The registry system was seen as a way 
to add a measure of control to California's voter-approved law seven 
years earlier decriminalizing marijuana for medical use.

The registry was made voluntary, however, and relatively few patients 
have signed up. The California Department of Public Health reports 
that during the fiscal year that ended last June, the state had only 
9,637 valid card holders.

In Colorado, by contrast, the state with a medical marijuana regime 
most similar to California's but where patient registration and 
annual renewal is mandatory, the number of patients holding valid ID 
cards as of December was 82,089. If California's patients were 
registering at that rate, there would be more than 615,000 of them.

California health department officials would not discuss the 
registry's unpopularity, but the reasons for it are hardly a mystery. 
Although the system was set up with extensive privacy protections, 
such as identifying patients by numbers instead of names, many people 
are reluctant to enter personal information on a government database 
since marijuana still is illegal under federal law.

The bill requiring California's pot patients to register is likely to 
meet fierce opposition from medical marijuana advocates, who have 
gone to court to block state and local laws limiting how many plants 
people can legally grow and regulations dictating where and how pot 
shops can operate.

Retired state Sen. John Vasconcellos, who sponsored the legislation 
creating the voluntary marijuana patient registry, predicted current 
lawmakers would be pre-empted from making the program mandatory, even 
if they approve the bill. The Legislature in his view cannot override 
voters who established at the ballot box that eligible patients only 
need a doctor's recommendation to be legal.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom