A week ago today, California health officials announced they were immediately suspending a pilot state-issued photo ID card program, citing fears that state officials and card-holders could be subject to federal prosecution in the wake of the Supreme Court's Raich decision. In that case, the court held that the federal government can prosecute patients and providers even in states where medical marijuana is legal. But medical marijuana supporters objected immediately, and this week the objections turned to threats, with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance warning that they will sue if the suspension is not ended.
"I am concerned about unintended potential consequences of issuing medical marijuana ID cards that could affect medical marijuana users, their families and staff of the California Department of Health Services," California health services head Sandra Shewry said in a statement last Friday announcing the suspension.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office said it would respond as quickly as it can to a Department of Health Services request to determine whether the ID card program could make state employees and patients liable for federal prosecution because it identifies them as obtaining marijuana or helping to facilitate its use. But the Health Department said even after it receives the legal review, it will make its own decision on whether to continue the program.
The fledgling program began in three rural northern California counties in May and so far has only 123 patients, state officials said. It was scheduled to expand statewide next month, but those plans are now on hold. The card program is designed to protect patients and caregivers from arrest by providing an ID recognized statewide. Some cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, have their own ID card programs. They are not affected by the Health Department decision.
"The decision would seem to be a tragedy, and I hope they'll reverse it as soon as possible," DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann told the Los Angeles Times last Friday.
By Tuesday, his organization and the ACLU had stopped hoping and starting insisting. In a letter to Health Services director Shewry and her boss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the two groups explained that Attorney General Lockyer had already clarified that state officials "...may not refuse to abide by the provisions of the Compassionate Use Act on the basis that this Act conflicts with federal law." The letter further explained that the state constitution and the state's highest court explicitly prohibit the executive branch from ignoring state law, even if it believes it conflicts with federal law.
"There is still much uncertainty among the public regarding the impact of the Raich decision. Emotions are running high, and sick and dying patients and their physicians are understandably concerned about their legal status. Under these circumstances, California government officials have the duty to ameliorate, not exacerbate, the public's fear and confusion. Instead, the CDHS's improper actions have unduly frighten and confused California's medical marijuana patients," wrote DPA and the ACLU. "We demand that you immediately lift the suspension of the medical marijuana program and the issuance of identification cards."