A medical marijuana defense group, Americans for Safe Access, has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) on behalf on medical marijuana patients in the Golden State. The lawsuit charges that a CHP policy of confiscating marijuana found during traffic stops even if travelers present valid documentation of their status as patients or caregivers violates not only California law but also the state and federal constitutions.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, when voters passed Proposition 215, also known as the state's Compassionate Use Act. Last year, in response to complaints from law enforcement and medical marijuana advocates alike about ambiguities in the law, the legislature enacted a law clarifying the meaning of Prop. 215 and explicitly allowing for the transportation of marijuana by qualified patients and caregivers.
ASA filed suit on behalf of seven plaintiffs, all of who are documented medical marijuana patients and all of whom were stopped by CHP for alleged traffic offenses and had their legally possessed medicine confiscated. The experience of plaintiff Mary Jane Winters was representative. Winters, a registered nurse who uses marijuana to treat chronic pain stemming from three herniated discs in her spine, was pulled over by the CHP on Thanksgiving Day, 2004 while on her way to deliver flowers to a homeless shelter. The CHP officer took two ounces of marijuana from her despite being presented with a physician's recommendation that she use marijuana medicinally. "Confiscation from legal patients is a civil rights violation," said Winters. "They had no reason to believe that I was not in compliance with California law."
It appears that CHP's policy of seizing medicine from patients in compliance with the law is the result not of ignorance of the law but of willful disobedience to it. "A number of patients were told by CHP officers that they don't recognize Proposition 215," said Kris Hermes, ASA's legal director. "CHP officers are sworn to uphold the laws of this state, not subvert them."
In a report issued last August, ASA found that law enforcement officers in the vast majority of California's 58 counties improperly seized marijuana from qualified patients and caregivers, but that the CHP was the worst offender. For CHP, seizing people's medicine is a matter of policy: "Even if a Section 11362.5 H&S claim is alleged, all marijuana shall be confiscated and booked as evidence." As ASA noted, all that is required to document the legal status of a patient is a copy of doctor's recommendation, and there is nothing "alleged" about it. Either the person has documentation and thus is in legal possession, or he does not. Now, perhaps, CHP will begin to grasp that not-so-subtle point.