Highway Robbery


Driver Mary Jane Winters (yes, that's her name) was pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers for allegedly speeding in Mendocino County on Thanksgiving Day 2004. The CHiPers found two ounces of marijuana in the 53-year-old nurse's car. They kept the Mary Jane, but they let the woman go, citing her with possession. She had a physician's recommendation to smoke weed for her chronic back pain, and charges were eventually dismissed. Under the state Compassionate Use Act, she could legally hold. But critics say state troopers don't recognize the state law, choosing to seize thousands of pounds of medical marijuana found on the highways of Cali each year. Winters wants her weed back.

Now she's one of eight plaintiffs suing the Highway Patrol for the apparent conflict in this CHP policy. According to the CHP's own handbook, even when compassionate use is invoked, "all marijuana shall be confiscated and booked as evidence ... ." Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical-marijuana group, is spearheading the suit, which would require the state to stop taking patients' pot. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and the CHP were named in the action, announced this week in Oakland.

The CHP says the law is not so clear. Medical marijuana users are showing doctors notes to officers as if they're legal tender, but officers aren't necessarily trained to scrutinize the little pieces of paper in the same way they are educated in checking IDs and insurance cards. Who knows if that's a valid doctor's signature, for example? Even after the state legislature authorized universal state ID cards for medical marijuana users in 2003, they have yet to be rolled out, compounding the, er, sticky situation.

"Numerous medical marijuana patients who are stopped by the CHP for minor traffic offenses have their medicine confiscated by the police as an added punishment," reads an Americans for Safe Access statement. "In most cases, when valid documentation is shown to officers, patients are forced to put up with responses such as 'we don't recognize Proposition 215' or 'possession of marijuana is still illegal.'"

The suit seeks to force the CHP "to amend that policy so that it is in compliance with state law" so officers do not "seize the medicine of patients," states Safe Access. And Mary Jane wouldn't actually get her Mary Jane back. The suit wants policy justice, not dried-up evidence.

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