County issues medical marijuana IDs

Advocates say fear, cost keep many from applying

By EDWARD SIFUENTES – esifuentes@nctimes.com

San Diego County has received 260 applications for medical marijuana ID cards since it launched the program in July, according to county health officials.

Nearly half the applications were from people ages 31-50, according to data provided by the county. A quarter of the applicants lived in North County, most of them in Carlsbad.

All of the applicants paid $166 for the card, which identifies them as legitimate medical marijuana patients entitled to carry up to 8 ounces of pot.

The county implemented the program this past summer after it lost a long legal struggle challenging the state law that required counties to provide the ID cards. The law does not require medical marijuana patients to have a card.

While acknowledging the program has only been in place for six months, medical marijuana advocates say the 260 applicants do not come close to the number of people they believe are legally allowed to use the drug. They say patients may be reluctant to apply for the card, fearing the information on the applications will be used by authorities.

“The problem here in San Diego County is that nobody trusts (the county),” said Rudy Reyes, a medical marijuana patient and activist.

The county says those fears are unfounded. The information on the applications is protected under federal privacy laws. And the county’s top prosecutor said people should use the card because it quickly identifies them as legitimate users of the drug.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies in the county have repeatedly cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries, including a Sept. 9 sweep that shut down 14 of the shops, two of them in North County.

The number of cards issued in San Diego County in the program’s first six months appears to be on par with the number issued by neighboring counties in their first year, according to state figures.

For example, Riverside County issued 265 medical marijuana cards its first year, Los Angeles County issued 401 cards and Orange County issued 114 cards. But advocates cite other places, such as Oakland in Alameda County, which issued 1,475 cards in its first year.

Unfounded fears?

There are potentially thousands of eligible patients in San Diego County based on discussions with doctors who recommend pot as medicine, said Eugene Davidovich, a medical marijuana advocate with the group Americans for Safe Access.

“People are afraid,” Davidovich said.

County officials said legitimate patients have nothing to fear.

The county does not provide personal information from the applications to anyone, including law enforcement, because it is protected by federal privacy laws, said Adrienne Yancey, assistant deputy director at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.

“We do not,” Yancey said. “If we were subpoenaed, I can’t say what would happen then … (but) we have not been subpoenaed.”

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said her office has not asked for the information. She said people should use the ID cards because they help law enforcement identify legitimate patients.

“No one should feel intimidated,” Dumanis said. “The county program is totally separate from us.”

Of the 260 applications the county received this year through November, 255 were approved. Five were rejected because the county could not get the doctor to confirm the recommendation, Yancey said.

Other statistical information provided to the North County Times by the county includes patients’ age range and city of residency. The newspaper also asked for, but did not receive, information on the types of illnesses reported by patients and information about their medical providers.

That information was not provided due to privacy rules, county officials said.

More data

Most of the people who requested a medical marijuana ID are between the ages of 31 and 50, a total of 114 patients, according to the data. Of the 260 applicants, only 14 were between the ages of 18 and 21.

Nearly half of the applicants, 120 people, said they lived in San Diego. Sixty applicants said they lived in North County cities, according to the data. Carlsbad had the highest number of applicants in North County, 14, followed by Vista with 11 and Oceanside with 10, according to the county’s data.

Patients’ distrust coupled with the $166 price tag for the card may have discouraged people from applying, said James Stacy, a Vista resident who operated one of the medical marijuana dispensaries raided by authorities in September.

The state requires a $66 fee and the county charges $100 to cover staff time and other administrative costs. San Diego County’s $166 fee is $13 higher than neighboring Riverside and Los Angeles counties, which charge $153 for the cards.

“Why would I pay $166 to be harassed and be put on a potential arrest list?” Stacy asked.

Stacy faces federal charges of selling marijuana to an undercover officer who posed as a patient at Movement in Action. He has said he did nothing wrong and operated his dispensary according to state guidelines.

In 1996, voters in the state approved the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized marijuana for medical use. The Legislature later passed Senate Bill 420 in 2003, which required counties to participate in the state’s medical marijuana ID program.

The county fought the state’s medical marijuana law until the case hit a legal dead end earlier this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

‘Additional protection’

After losing that case, the Board of Supervisors agreed to implement the medical marijuana ID card program.

Officials estimated that they would receive about 100 applications a month based on other counties’ experience.

Yancey said the county processed about 100 applications the first month, but the number quickly dropped off in following months.

Since the state began the program in 2004, more than 37,000 medical marijuana ID cards have been issued. The county with the largest number of cards is San Francisco, with more than 13,000, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

Riverside County has 2,180 ID cards and Orange County has 622, according to state figures.

Davidovich said the county could do more to publicize the card and calm people’s fears about privacy protection. Davidovich said he has a card and encourages others to get it because it offers an “additional layer of protection” for legitimate patients.

“We go out of our way to tell people to sign up for the program,” Davidovich said.

Call staff writer Edward Sifuentes at 760-740-3511.

San Diego County medical marijuana ID program

Patients by age

Ages 18-21: 14

Ages 22-30: 47

Ages 31-50: 114

Ages 50-over: 85

Total: 260

Applications by city

Carlsbad: 14

Chula Vista: 9

Del Mar: 5

El Cajon: 18

Encinitas: 3

Escondido: 7

Imperial Beach: 3

La Mesa: 12

Lemon Grove: 2

National City: 3

Oceanside: 10

Poway: 1

San Diego: 120

San Marcos: 7

Santee: 6

Solana Beach: 2

Vista: 11

Unincorporated: 27

Total: 260

Source: San Diego County Health and Human Service Agency

Cards issued by county

San Diego: 255

Riverside: 2,180

Orange : 622

Los Angeles: 1,579

Imperial: 15

San Bernardino: 200

Source: California Department of Public Health

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