Medicinal pot backers stunned by Sutter County rejection
Supporters of medical marijuana appeared caught off guard by Sutter County's move to snuff out an identification card program for medicinal users.
The Board of Supervisors' narrow rejection of the plan Tuesday night left the county as one of two in California without such a program, along with Colusa County, 14 years after California voters passed Proposition 215 to legalize marijuana use for the sick.
A day later, advocates of legal cannabis use warned the refusal could invite litigation from the state or citizens to force the county's hand.
"It never occurred to us that it would reach that place," admitted Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for the advocacy group California NORML. "To be honest, we're disappointed in this decision. It really leaves the residents of Sutter County hanging high and dry compared to everybody else in the state."
"It's absolutely outrageous; they clearly have no respect for the taxpayers who will foot the bill for a lawsuit (the county) can't win," said Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nationwide group pushing to overhaul cannabis laws. "They're sworn to uphold the state constitution and they turn their backs on it. It's like an act of civil disobedience, which has its place — but not among officials running a county government."
A veteran of the local battles over marijuana is Steve King, an Olivehurst man who opened a cooperative in Yuba County last October only to have the county shut it down within days for violating zoning codes. He also was arrested in Sutter County in 2002 for medical marijuana possession, a charge a judge dismissed, citing Prop. 215.
"It would take someone to sue them to show them they have no way to not implement" the ID cards, said King.
How state authorities will respond to Sutter County's opposition was not immediately clear. The Department of Public Health could sanction the county or pass the matter to the Attorney General's Office, but health officials have not decided on their next move, public health spokesman Ralph Montano said.
Sutter County's Health Division would have charged an annual fee to issue cards to those using cannabis under a doctor's recommendation to relieve symptoms of cancer, glaucoma and other conditions. Sheriff J. Paul Parker last week endorsed the plan as a way to clearly set medicinal customers apart from drug abusers and traffickers, lightening the workload for law enforcement.
Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003, directed California counties to issue the ID cards to those using marijuana with a doctor's approval. But the bill does not list specific sanctions against counties that resist doing so — a point Supervisor Jim Whiteaker emphasized Tuesday, questioning why the state has not already moved against Sutter County.
Whiteaker proposed entrusting a noncounty entity such as a local pharmacy or health clinic with the duty to issue ID cards, and attacked existing ID systems for forcing card-issuing counties to pay the state as well. California would have collected $66 out of the $128-per-year cost per card in Sutter County.
"Even though this is state law and California says we have to do this, they ought to be taking the burden of issuing these cards," Whiteaker said Wednesday. "... Why do we have to pay the state a fee if they're not willing to run this program?"
The rejection of the marijuana ID cards also proved divisive for two candidates seeking a supervisor's seat in this year's election.
"I was surprised, to say the least, that the board actually had the strength and courage of character to say 'No, we don't want it,'" said Dick Boundy, one of four people challenging Larry Munger for his 3rd District seat. "I assumed it would pass and was very pleased it did not."
Medicinal users "can get it through hospitals and pharmacies," he said. "They don't need to go through counties to get it."
Horacio Paras was no more enthusiastic about medical marijuana use and feared opening a wider "gateway" to the abuse of harder drugs, but stressed the need to avoid a showdown between county and state.
"It's required by law and we need to make sure our county is in compliance, but personally, I do have a problem with marijuana and drug use in general," said Paras, a longtime youth sports coach in the county. "But if we need to follow (state) law, then I would support that."
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