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Hey, Man, Got Any ID? 

Why the Legislature shouldn't extend the city's medical marijuana identification system statewide

Wednesday, Jun 11 2003
Imagine a health care system in a republic we'll call Doobieland, where public health is overseen by frightened, distracted bureaucrats who don't really believe in the medicine they're supposed to administer, and are fearful that administering it will send them to prison. They'd rather do anything than deal with this situation, so that is exactly what they do. As the bureaucrats go about ignoring, or otherwise distancing themselves from, the task of running a health care program they feel uncomfortable with, that program careens, unsupervised, out of control. Before long, phones go unanswered, medical files lie strewn where they oughtn't be.

"Medical records were spread everywhere, where everyone could see them, including AIDS information, where people could see the documents," says Hank Schulz, who until five weeks ago was a clerk in the Doobieland medical world, otherwise known as the San Francisco Department of Public Health, where he helped provide medical marijuana users with identification cards designed to protect them from arrest. Then Schulz was fired, he says, because he complained about problems in the pot-ID program, which was overseen by senior managers.

The California Legislature is now considering whether to expand such an ID program statewide. Schulz is, to put it mildly, skeptical. "That's why I laugh when they say they're taking the program statewide," Schulz says. "Because here, it's a joke."

San Francisco's pot-ID program exists in the trippy new world of Proposition 215, a ballot measure, passed six years ago, that requires the state to implement the legalization of medical uses of marijuana in defiance of federal anti-drug laws. Prop. 215, of course, didn't provide any real guidance on addressing the minor problem of federal law, which prohibits almost all uses of marijuana. Last Monday, the California Senate took a stab at addressing the conflict, passing a bill modeled on San Francisco's marijuana-ID program, instituted three years ago to provide law enforcement officers with an efficient way to sort medical pot-holders from people who possess bud for mere personal gratification. The bill is set to go to the state Assembly. But perhaps it shouldn't.

Problems with the San Francisco pot-ID program, as detailed by Schulz, suggest that other cities and counties may also run into difficulties when they issue medical marijuana identification cards. The cards are based on letters from doctors who say their patients have a legitimate use for medical marijuana. But in San Francisco, Schulz says, a handful of prescription-mill doctors have issued thousands of recommendations that people get medical marijuana ID cards -- at a fee of $250 per recommendation. As these questionable recommendations rolled in, Schulz says, senior Health Department officials appeared to distance themselves from the pot-ID program, apparently fearful of legal ramifications.

"The DPH was paranoid about it the whole time. The two direct supervisors who were supposed to be in charge of this program never talked to me, ever. They never responded to our phone calls. We helped six other counties set up programs. I found out later [DPH officials] were angry I had done all this," Schulz says, adding that his nominal supervisor, Josh Bamberger, seemed anything but interested. "He never talked to me about it. It's indicative of the department's attitude. It's such a low priority. Their attitude seems to be, "We kind of want to do this, but we don't want to do it.'"

Bamberger, medical director for the department's division of housing and urban health, says that the marijuana-ID program is humming along quite well, and that he knows nothing of Schulz's complaints. "I can't be responsible if a particular employee has made certain claims," he says, contending that the department has complied with federal laws guaranteeing medical privacy.

San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno, who sponsored the city ordinance enabling the pot-ID program, says he doesn't believe alleged difficulties in San Francisco will hamper the prospect of a statewide ID program. "All I can say is, the program we designed is not that complex, and it can be easily implemented. If there are problems in implementation, I don't think it has to do with the program. I think the program is fairly straightforward and implementable," Leno says.

The program may sound simple, on its face.

But through the haze, some questions loom: Which communities in California have health departments staffed by medical professionals who are unafraid of DEA agents? Which county or city has a health department staffed by doctors who believe marijuana represents an important area of medical practice?

Though the emphatic statements of a few doctors who believe strongly in medical marijuana can make headlines, medical science as a whole is actually a long way from becoming a pot advocate's club. The primary medical use of marijuana is the supposed alleviation of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. But chemotherapy and its associated anti-nausea drugs have advanced greatly since pot was observed to provide some relief in the 1970s. Now the active drug contained in the marijuana plant, THC, is considered a third choice in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea; there are plenty of medications that are considered more effective.

But the medical marijuana movement has never really been based, primarily and overwhelmingly, on pot's supposedly medicinal powers.

Health care in Doobieland has been burdened since its inception by the ambiguous motives of medical marijuana's sponsors, who have appeared to see medicinal pot less as a means to alleviate the suffering of a small group of medical patients than as a first step toward completely legalizing pot.

Proposition 215 wouldn't have even made the ballot without financing from a pair of billionaires bent on legalizing drugs for recreational use. Prop. 215 backer George Soros is a financial speculator who in 1994 funded the creation of the Lindesmith Center, a New York think tank that has called for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. Co-backer Peter Lewis is a billionaire insurance executive who has also spent millions fighting drug laws. In 2000, Lewis was arrested in New Zealand after customs agents caught him with 103 grams of marijuana and hashish, assorted smoking pipes, and bongs.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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