Medical marijuana backers sue DMV

Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles today on behalf of Rose Johnson, 53, of Atwater. The Merced County Superior Court lawsuit claims that despite Johnson’s clean driving record — not having caused an accident in 37 years of driving — the DMV refused to renew her license in July after finding she’s a medical-marijuana user and deeming that she had an “addiction to, or habitual use of, [a] drug” that renders her unable to safely operate a car.

“The only evidence introduced by the DMV to support this conclusion is the fact of Johnson’s medical marijuana use pursuant to state law,” the lawsuit says. “The DMV abused its discretion by suspending Johnson’s license on this basis.”

ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford issued a statement this afternoon saying when California voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, “they never intended to authorize the DMV to strip medical marijuana patients of their drivers’ licenses. The DMV should not be in the business of revoking the licenses of drivers like Ms. Johnson simply because she is a medical marijuana patient.”

And ASA says this isn’t an isolated case: DMV has suspended or revoking licenses of medical-marijuana patients in other counties including Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Glenn, Merced, Placer, Sacramento, and Sonoma.

Johnson’s case seems particularly ironic because Merced County, where she lives, last year instructed its sheriff’s deputies to respect state law and not cite medical marijuana patients or seize their medicine. Yet Johnson, never accused of driving while under the influence of marijuana or anything else, was denied her license renewal by a state agency for an activity allowed by state law.

And as I write this item, having just finished an article on the state Supreme Court’s impending review of Proposition 8, I’m wonder how much longer we’ll have to keep litigating and re-litigating the effects of a medical-marijuana initiative approved by voters 12 years ago. It seems California just can’t find a way to stop stepping on its own toes.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Josh,

    Prop. 215 is a very interesting subject. Thanks for your note on this recent matter.

    An important part of state law on Prop. 215 has recently been struck down by a state appellate court and is now before the state Supreme Court in the Kelly case (S164830).

    I’ll soon be filing an amicus brief in this case.

    I invented local governmental implementation of Prop. 215 in 1997 (Arcata) — when most everyone said such an approach was impossible — and the OCR has editorialized that I’m “the closest thing to a hero in the struggle to implement” the initiative. I’m likely the leading expert on this subject.

    The AG has recently issued guidelines that are very adverse to interests of Prop. 215 — at the urging of the law enforcement lobby. AG Brown would like to be gov. again, and needs such help, so he’s willing to compromise Prop. 215.

    I’ve submitted 30 relevant questions about these guiedelines to Christine Gasparac (AG press sec.) — but the attorneys in the office have refused to respond to them. I will send you a copy, if you like.

    That same political dynamic is how present state law, SB 420 of 2003, was adopted — during the recall of Gray Davis. Davis was trying to stay in office and AG Locker wanted to follow him as gov., so the law enforcement lobby was able to leverage a late-session gut-and-amend bill to pass law its agenda.

    This sudden move even surprised Davis’ relevant staff, since he often said that he’d never sign such a bill. But, his political pants were on fire and he had to do something — like carry this key water for the cops.

    The source of the language in SB 420 is the AG’s office under Lockyer.

    I was at the right spot at the right time, to discover this fact.

    Limits on cannabis possession and cultivation in SB 420 are what have been struck down by the appellate court. The AG actually concedes this point — but is attempting to preserve application of these (totally unreasonable) limits to a program of purported “arrest-immunity.”

    My amicus brief will thwart that effort and hopefully — finally put Prop. 215 interpretation on the correct course.

    I’ll inform you of the legal details related to this amicus brief, if you like. I guarantee you’ll be very interested in these details.

    I’ve had bill language ready (approved by Leg. Counsel)since 2004, to replace SB 420, and in every session have slogged it around the Capitol. I’ll be back during December, attempting to find authorship.

    I have a recent essay about Prop. 215 posted online at my (local affairs) blog: http://yolosun.wordpress.com
    Just consult the archives link at top of home page to locate this essay.

    Another interesting and little understood (historical) aspect of implementation is that for the intial 5 years of its existence, persons related to Prop. 215 were being subjected to criminal process on a preponderance-of-evidence standard, rather than beyond-reasonable-doubt. The state Supreme Court had to correct that problem in the Mower case (2002).

    Prop. 215 implementation must finally be succesfully achieved. Good journalism will be essential to that effort. Please email me a note, and I’ll help you to best accomplish such reporting.

    Best wishes,
    Bobby Harris

  • This is facinating information, and I will be following it closely. I have been part of the victimizations in Siskiyou County – where they routinely claim people (including my patient and thus myself) were in violation of the law for “growing more than the limits in SB 420”.

    Also, this County says that hash and hash oil are “manufacturing a controlled substance” that is not covered by 215 (yes, they have had the AG opinion shoved in their face, etc). There is a case on this now in the 3rd district COA – Thomas Von Lhar is the defendant.

    My patient is also the only person in local memory to have a habeas petition granted. In her case, it was because the State kept her doctor, Philip Denney, from testifying at her cultivation trial (she was aquitted of all the other usual BS charges), and her attorney (appointed) failed to make a coherent offer of proof, thus IAC.

  • Pete McDonald

    Does anyone know where I can learn what’s going on with Von Lhar?