So you've heard California legally protects the sick who possess and ingest marijuana as long as they have a doctor-certified medical condition that allows for therapeutic use of marijuana.
After all, voters approved Proposition 215, ordering lawmakers "to implement a plan of safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need of marijuana." And in 2003, state Sen. John Vasconcellos pushed through Senate Bill 420, assuring that medical marijuana patients could buy weed without fear of dispensary crackdowns or police arrests.
To further guarantee that, SB 420 required county governments to issue official Medical Marijuana Identification (MMI) cards to patients who hold official weed prescriptions from their doctors.
The $153 cards are sought by the sick and elderly, in particular, who want the peace of mind that they're taking no illegal risks. If a police officer detains a cardholder for having weed, the cop must, under the law, call the phone number on the Los Angeles County–issued Medical Marijuana Identification card and recite its ID number. If the card is real, the officer must release the cardholder.
But the cards, which look something like a driver's license with the state seal of California, are trapped in bureaucracy in L.A.
L.A. Weekly has learned that L.A. County, which employs a sea of 105,000 workers and has an annual budget of $27.1 billion, allowed a backup to form, which forced patients to wait three to five months to get cards — because its tiny MMI card-issuing office had been allowed to drop from four to two clerks.
Sue North, longtime chief of staff to Sen. Vasconcellos (he died in May 2014), says, "People should be able to stand in line and get it in one day. State and local governments do it every day for driver's licenses and marriage licenses. If [L.A. County] can't get it done in a day, maybe the county should let people who sell the product issue the cards."
The MMI cards issued by California counties are far different from a "recommendation certificate" from a doctor working next to a dispensary. If you hold only a certificate, you can still be arrested, says Bruce Margolin, a leading marijuana attorney and director of the L.A. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
But under California law, police can't even ask an MMI cardholder questions about the marijuana in his or her possession. In fact, an officer faces a misdemeanor if he doesn't respect the MMI card, Margolin says, because it comes under medical privacy mandated by the federal HIPAA law and supported by SB 420.
Last May, a man the Weekly has agreed not to identify tried to renew his MMI card. He was told by an L.A. County Public Health official that it took five months to get an appointment — a delay Margolin and North both say could violate state law.
In early September, when the man finally got his appointment, the clerk refused the prescription, saying that the electronic signature, used by many doctors now to sign prescriptions, was too easy to "copy."
The patient, who suffers severe neck pain from a badly injured and deteriorated disc, says he was told by the county clerk to go back to the Westside and get his doctor to sign — with an ink pen.
"I'm trying to operate within the law, but the county is making this really difficult," he says. "I might as well take a chance and go buy my marijuana on the street. I'm trying to avoid that because I'm a professional in this town and can't afford to be arrested. That would be the end of me and my career."
North says Vasconcellos would be appalled: "If John were alive and knew about this case, he'd get this man legal counsel. Proposition 215 reads you have a right to access if a doctor recommends it. Government cannot be an impediment to that."
She says counties have resisted issuing MMI cards before, adding that they were tasked with this duty a decade ago because state health agencies didn't want the job.
Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's interim health officer, tells the Weekly he did not realize that an MMI card provides California patients their sole guaranteed legal protection. He says he thought a doctor's recommendation satisfied police curiosity and offered legal cover.
"It's the only legal remedy?" Gunzenhauser asks of county MMI cards. "I can see why people want to have one."
Gunzenhauser was apologetic about the five-month wait unearthed by the Weekly. He said he was down by two clerks — and still is — in the difficult-to-find, living room–sized office on the ground floor at 241 N. Figueroa. There, just two clerks administer MMI cards and many other health cards, creating a long backlog. His office issues about 1,000 MMI cards annually.
"We're going to do our best to make sure [the wait time for getting an appointment] doesn't get to be more than a month," Gunzenhauser says. "I'm OK if we have a system if a month is the longest someone has to wait. They can still get their prescription."
But Margolin agrees with North: A one-month delay is unacceptable, leaving sick patients open to being detained and arrested for possession. And he criticized the county for refusing widely accepted electronic physician signatures, calling it "another example of an attempt at delay. ... Nothing in SB 420 says the doctor can't sign electronically."
Moreover, the Medical Board of California says that Schedule II prescriptions for opiates and narcotics are the only drugs for which the state requires an original signature in ink, according to spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson.
The man forced to wait five months suffers from a pinched ulnar nerve in his neck caused by two vertebrae rubbing together. He says it feels "like a really bad toothache all the time."
He and his doctor discussed an operation, rejected due to the risk of further damaging his neck. They discussed Vicodin and other drugs, but the patient worried about addiction or accidental overdose.
The man says that when his doctor asked if marijuana relieved his pain, he responded, "Absolutely. It cuts the pain and makes me forget about it."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas supported SB 420 as a legislator. His spokeswoman, Yolanda Vera, was looking into the reasons behind the long waits at the Public Health office.
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"The whole purpose" of SB 420, Vera says, "is to avoid undue pain and suffering."
L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz also supported SB 420 when he was in the Legislature. His director of communications, Paul Neuman, says, "Councilman Koretz knows people whose lives may well have been saved by using medical marijuana. ... The councilman is going to call the Department of Public Health about the time lags in appointments, and if we can expedite this, we will do so."
In an email response to written questions submitted by the Weekly, an unidentified official from the county wrote, "The Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program (MMIP) is currently booking appointments in November." The official said a three-month backlog had been somewhat reduced, and people can walk in "if scheduled applicants break their appointments and the walk-ins are willing to wait."
But Margolin says, "Something stinks and it ain't the marijuana. Five months to wait for an appointment to get a card obviously defeats the purpose of the legislation. It's prejudicial to ward off people who need this card [in order] to feel safe."