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Wednesday, June 22,2011

Looking up patients, caregivers

Proposed legislation would allow law enforcement to search medical marijuana patients and caregivers by name and address

by Andy Balaskovitz

A necessary improvement to the state’s Medical Marihuana Act or an infringement upon civil liberties?


That question has surfaced over proposed legislation in
the state Senate that would require the state Department of Licensing
and Regulatory Affairs, which processes medical marijuana program
applications, to give the Michigan State Police the names and addresses
of registered patients and caregivers. Right now, law enforcement
authorities can only check registrations by obtaining a patient or
caregiver’s personal identification number.


The measure, a substitute for Senate Bill 377, was
unanimously voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday with
support from the State Police, the Michigan Municipal League, the state
Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Eaton County prosecutor and the
state Attorney General’s Office.


The original version of the bill required the licensing
department to disclose "information concerning issuance of the card" for
new patients and caregivers to the State Police, which would keep track
of the information and disseminate it to local law enforcement.


One Republican sponsor of Senate Bill 377 said the bill
would solve a problem law enforcement officials are having out in the
field: identifying who is a legitimate patient or caregiver. 


“It ensures that the police know who is a legitimate
medical marijuana card holder,” said state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand
Ledge and a co-sponsor of the bill. “Police need to know quickly (who is
a patient and caregiver) so they don’t take inappropriate action.”


The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, did not return multiple calls for comment.


Sergeant Chris Hawkins, legislative liaison with the State
Police, said law enforcement can already access information on who is a
patient or caregiver through the Law Enforcement Information Network,
or LEIN, with that person’s medical marijuana identification number. But
he said it’s not always easy to identify who is a legitimate patient or
caregiver.


Hawkins said “occasionally” someone is in
possession of marijuana but not a card or paperwork. Because police
can’t access medical marijuana information by name or address, the only
way to identify those people is if they have their PIN memorized.
Hawkins also said the roughly four-month backlog in issuing cards is
making it “problematic” to identify who is a patient, even though the
act says a patient’s application serves as a card in the meantime if the
application wasn’t rejected within 20 days.


“Do you take the person’s word? Do you seize the marijuana
and investigate further? It is problematic,” Hawkins said, adding that
the department does not track incidents where officers have difficulty
obtaining medical marijuana information.


Ingham County Undersheriff Allan Spyke said the
information could be useful if someone called in a tip that someone else
is suspected of growing marijuana illegally. “We could cross-check it
before we go over to the house,” he said.


Spyke confirmed anecdotal cases in which someone was
pulled over with marijuana in the car and said they were a medical
marijuana patient but couldn’t prove it.


“I could see how (the bill) would clarify who is
legitimately able to possess the marijuana as opposed to those who are
just trying to scam the police,” he said.


Lansing Police Lt. Noel Garcia said city
police have had “some difficulty” identifying legitimate patients and
caregivers if they haven’t been issued their physical card from the
state yet. However, if someone does have a card, Garcia said “it’s
pretty straightforward” identifying patients and caregivers. 


Samantha Harkins, a legislative associate at the Michigan Municipal League, said the league  supports the substitute bill.


“I think the intent of the legislation is
to protect both patients and law enforcement,” she said. “If I see my
neighbor has a bunch of pot plants, (police) can look up (their
information by name and address) before doing a raid.”


Harkins said the original version of the
bill was “vague” and that the substitute is “helpful for caregivers” and
“more protective of patients.”


Harkins said “there have been complaints”
by the medical marijuana community about law enforcement knowing
whether certain individuals are patients and if that information could
be abused. “I hope that’s something that’s not a common problem.”


But some medical marijuana advocates wonder if police accessing this information poses serious privacy questions.


Shekina Peņa, owner of Your Healthy Choice Clinic, 628 E.
Michigan Ave., advised new patients and caregivers the potential dangers
of allowing law enforcment to access personal information like names
and date of birth.


“It should be someone’s option (to give that information),” she said. “It definitely brings up patient privacy.”


Peņa said information about what medicine people take is “very private information.”


The proposed bill is now on the floor of
the Senate for consideration. It would take a three-fourths majority of
the House and Senate to amend the Medical Marihuana Act.


Rich Carl, owner of Green Cross
compassion club in Lansing, said the proposed bill does not offer “due
process” because it presumes patients and caregivers are not valid.


“That’s an unfair presumption,” he said. “We have a law —
the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act — which provides for patient legality
and safety that is sufficient to protect patients who are certified by a
physician. It has public safety protections worked into it. I don’t
think we should change one word of it.”

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