May 30, 2001
By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO – An unusual coalition of police and medical marijuana advocates is struggling to craft a statewide patient and caregivers' registry that would skirt the legal edges of an adverse U.S. Supreme Court decision this month.
To do so, law enforcement officials want to shield themselves from learning the identity of doctors who prescribe marijuana, and perhaps the people who grow it and the patients who use it – in part for fear federal agents might seize the registry.
"We're really walking a delicate line. Law enforcement is supposed to enforce laws, not break laws," said Pete Herley, who represented the California Police Chiefs Association at a task force meeting called Wednesday by Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the state's top law enforcement official.
The secrecy has become more significant since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 14 that California's landmark Proposition 215 cannot supersede federal laws against marijuana distribution. Since voters approved California's medical marijuana law in 1996, eight other states have passed similar measures.
"In California, marijuana is supposed to be legitimate for people who have a medical need," said Robert Elsberg, who represented the California Peace Officers' Association at Wednesday's meeting. "We would never support something that violates federal law. But we will remove our opposition to it and we would go and tell the governor it's a better system than we have today."
Police and prosecutors are eager to have an easily verifiable, uniform, statewide registry so they don't waste time and money charging a legitimate medical marijuana user who will go free under California law, Elsberg and Herley said.
Law enforcement groups, along with the state medical society and medical marijuana advocates, all want to shield doctors who prescribe marijuana in apparent violation of federal law.
"We don't care who the doctor is. We're not going to go around and bust the doctor," Elsberg said.
However, a major remaining sticking point in the bill being crafted by state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, is how to verify doctors' prescriptions while protecting them from federal prosecution.
Law enforcement groups want a variation on the state's existing requirements for prescribing addictive drugs. But doctors would file their prescriptions with local health departments instead of the state Department of Justice, to ensure it never falls into the hands of law enforcement.
Vasconcellos, along with medical marijuana advocates, is balking even at that protection.
With the acquiescence of law enforcement representatives, Vasconcellos removed portions of his proposed legislation Wednesday that would have required counties to check patients' identifying information or verify that their attending physician in fact has a valid medical license. Counties would not even have to report how many licenses they have issued.
Until Wednesday, his bill would have given police access to the name, sex, race, date of birth, address, driver's license and Social Security number of each medical marijuana patient so they could verify the patient's identity.
But when marijuana advocates vehemently objected that such information could be turned over to federal agents, Vasconcellos and law enforcement groups agreed to consider following San Francisco's model, in which patients are given a 16-digit code number.
Once patients' identifying and prescription information is verified, the information is destroyed and only the code number and expiration date remain, said Dr. Herminia Palacio of San Francisco's Public Health Department.
Law enforcement's support is crucial if Gov. Gray Davis is to sign the measure he squashed two years ago before it reached his desk, said Vasconcellos.
"If you guys don't support the bill, he won't sign it – not only support it, but persuade him he wants the bill," Vasconcellos told police and prosecutors.