May 26, 2009 – Some experts and health care providers say they don’t expect a surge in medical marijuana applications as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear challenges to California’s medical marijuana law.

San Bernardino and San Diego counties had sued three years ago, arguing that federal drug law surpasses California law and makes marijuana possession illegal. By refusing to hear the case, the court upheld lower-court rulings that rejected the counties’ arguments.

Despite the court’s decision, federal law still prohibits the use of marijuana and doctors are reluctant to risk their licenses to recommend it, said Dr. Tom Bent, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians. Bent, who practices in Laguna Beach, said he knows of a doctor whose dispensary was raided.

“That’s had a chilling effect,” said Bent, whose professional organization represents doctors statewide. “Personally, I am a coward. I am not willing to be arrested by the federal government. I have worked too long and too hard for that medical license.”

He said the academy’s once-liberal stance on medical marijuana use has changed. In 1994, members supported marijuana use for some patients. But the academy in 2007 rescinded its policy and determined that it needed more evidence-based research to determine how much it helps patients, Bent said.

Doctors may legally prescribe a capsule form of marijuana, Marinol, to patients, especially those on chemotherapy or with AIDS, who cannot get relief from other means, Bent said.

“I think there’s a lot we need to know,” he said. “All our information is anecdotal. There’s no science.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. According to the agency, marijuana has a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

But earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Justice Department would not prosecute organizations that operated under state law.

In 2003, state lawmakers passed the Medical Marijuana Program Act, also known as Prop. 215. The state has issued nearly 30,300 medical marijuana cards since 2004, according to the California Department of Public Health.

San Bernardino County has not issued any medical marijuana cards. It could start to do so as soon as next month.

Riverside County is one of 41 across the state to issue identification cards after patients show proof of residency, provide a doctor’s recommendation and pay a $153 annual fee.

Victoria Jauregui Burns, chief of Riverside County’s Department of Public Health’s HIV program, said the county has averaged 350 applicants a year for the past three years. But some 200 people have applied for the cards in the past three months, she said.

Burns said she doesn’t anticipate an even greater application surge because of last week’s court ruling.

“The people who wanted to get the cards already got them,” she said, adding that applicants must renew cards annually.

Despite medical marijuana card availability, Riverside County and almost every city in it has banned dispensaries, which can charge up to $400 for an ounce of marijuana.

Roger Anderson, spokesman for the Inland Valley Drug Free Community Coalition, said the court ruling doesn’t change anything because federal law still bans marijuana possession and use.

However, he thinks that most Californians believe the state program is a way for people to get high, not pain relief.

Anderson said his Rancho Cucamonga-based organization is gauging whether it can gather enough support to defeat Prop. 215.

“Our biggest concern is for the kids,” he said.

Lanny Swerdlow, a registered nurse and longtime cannabis proponent in Riverside County, said the court decision will have an immediate effect because residents in San Diego and San Bernardino counties soon will apply for medical marijuana cards and get them. There are plenty of doctors who will write recommendations to patients for medical marijuana use, he said.

The test will be whether county district attorneys prosecute nonprofit marijuana cooperatives and collectives, which state Attorney General Jerry Brown says are legal under California law, Swerdlow said. Source – By LORA HINES – The Press-Enterprise

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