That Is High

Medical marijuana smokers face a 1,000-percent increase in cost of state ID card, which could force its demise

A veteran who said she had Gulf War Syndrome sat next to a woman who complained of damaged disks in her back; an HIV-positive man talked to a woman with a seizure disorder. Potent smoke swirled around them and drifted up to blur the fluorescent lights.

It was the latest meeting of medical marijuana activists at the California Marijuana Party's resource center, where fat joints get passed in between impassioned speeches, and where small bags of sticky green “compassion” get handed out for free before everyone disperses.

The activists had gathered to talk about the abrupt, and sizable, fee hike in state-issued medical marijuana ID cards.

The California Department of Health Services sent out the bland letter with the big news in late December. The annual state fee is rising from $13 to $142, in addition to the $33 fee card holders pay to the city. While patients on MediCal will get a price break, veterans and elderly patients who are receiving federal benefits will not, since the federal government still isn't down with California's medical marijuana experiment.

The cards are meant to protect legitimate patients from arrest and prosecution, and allow the cardholder to legally possess up to eight ounces of pot. Each card has a photograph of the cardholder and a unique ID number, but no name or address. If a cop pulls someone over who reeks of pot and the driver whips out an ID card, the police officer is supposed to have a dispatcher verify that the card is legitimate, by going to an encrypted Web site listed on the card.

The activists vented their outrage at the fee hike, which they indignantly noted was an increase of 1,000 percent. “They're creating two different classes of people, those who can afford to buy the protection and those who cannot,” says Shona Gochenaur, executive director of the activist group Axis of Love. The increase prices out people with serious medical conditions who are scraping by on disability or another form of public assistance, she says.

Yet Gochenaur doesn't have a state ID card. Nor did most of the people in the room. The state had distributed only 9,076 cards by the end of January, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services — and she estimates that the state's actual patient population is between 150,000 and 350,000. When San Francisco distributed a city card of its own, before switching to the state system, more than 11,000 patients signed up.

“There's an unspoken boycott going on,” explains Gochenaur. The activists in the room agree. Patients have heard alarming rumors about what can happen when you sign up for the state ID card. They say it's essentially putting your name on a list of people who are breaking a federal law, and they worry that it's just a matter of time before the Drug Enforcement Agency demands that the state turn over that list. (The state insists it keeps all information about cardholders and applicants “confidential and secure.”)

In an ironic twist, patients' reluctance to sign up with the state system has brought about the current fee hike, which in turn will make it harder and less appealing for patients to sign up.

The state program is out of money, explains Dale Gieringer, a California spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “They do have a financial crunch because enrollment has not been what they wanted,” he says. The program received a loan from the state for its start-up costs, and was expected to use incoming enrollment fees to pay back the loan. Now, with repayment due when the fiscal year ends in June, the program has raised fees in an attempt to raise money quickly.

It's a counterproductive move if ever there were one, says Gieringer. “If they try to raise the fees like this, they're not going to get anything back,” he says. “Because the whole program will collapse!”

In July, the city regulations that Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi hammered out for pot clubs go into effect. The clubs will then be allowed to dispense marijuana only to those with a government-issued ID card; a doctor's recommendation alone will no longer suffice. But patients say the new rule won't drive them to the state program. Instead, many people plan to register in Oakland, since Alameda County still issues its own card.

Mirkarimi offered a nonbinding resolution last week urging the San Francisco Department of Public Health to abandon the state ID card, and switch back to a local system using city cards. While the resolution wouldn't have the force of law, even that has run into difficulty, as Supervisor Ed Jew prevented a vote on the resolution and shuttled it into committee.

But while San Francisco advocates are hoping the city will go its own way, state activists are watching the local furor with concern. If San Francisco bows out, the state program will have even deeper financial troubles — especially since San Francisco has more cardholders than any other county in the state.

“We are sympathetic to the needs and concerns of patients in San Francisco, but there's something larger going on, and we need to asses the needs of patients throughout the state,” says Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for Americans for Safe Access. “If San Francisco pulls out, it endangers the stability of the whole state program, and it also sends a message to other counties that it's OK for them to not comply.”

Still, most local patients are rooting for Mirkarimi to succeed, and say bringing back a city card would solve both their privacy and financial concerns. Mike Welch is both a patient and a provider; he runs Sanctuary, a small pot club in the Tenderloin. He says that if the fee hike goes through and the city doesn't present another option, many of his clients will be priced out of the system.

Welch notes that the state ID card expires after one year, and the renewal fee costs the same $142 as the initial fee. In addition, a patient needs a biannual doctor's recommendation to be eligible for the card, and a visit to a cannabis-friendly doctor usually costs between $80 and $200. “These are people with AIDS, with cancer, people who are too sick to work,” he says. “Even $20 is a huge amount of money to people who are living on public assistance.”

If his patients can't afford a state ID card, he says, they may go back to buying pot illegally on the street. “They're forcing people out of the green market, and into the black market,” he says.

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