SAN FRANCISCO -- With $25 and a doctor's note, sick people can get an official city ID card entitling them to use marijuana, the city's maverick district attorney proudly announced Friday.
The program shields card-holders caught with the drug from local prosecution -- though marijuana possession remains illegal under federal law.
''This represents another stone in the foundation we're building to make people recognize that cannabis is a legitimate medicinal agent,'' said District Attorney Terence Hallinan. ''I'm not really worried we won't be able to work things out with the federal government.''
Californians voted to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996, but the ballot measure they approved has been entangled in legal disputes ever since.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy has long opposed medical marijuana initiatives, considering them backdoor routes to legalizing marijuana. Agency officials refused to comment on San Francisco's new ID program.
In addition to California, measures approving the medical use of marijuana have passed in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state.
While federal opposition to marijuana remains strong, there are signs that government arguments against states' medicinal marijuana measures may be weakening.
A federal judge on Friday hinted he may be forced to allow an Oakland club to distribute medicinal marijuana because the Justice Department hasn't rebutted evidence that cannabis is the only effective treatment for a large group of seriously ill people.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer of San Francisco said he would rule Monday in the complex case, which draws in the wider conflict between California's medical marijuana initiative and federal drug regulations.
Jane Weirick, who uses marijuana to alleviate pain from a back ailment, said the city's ID cards will ''finally give us legitimacy.''
''I was taking prescription opiates and was stuck in bed all the time,'' she said. ''When I started taking cannabis, I was finally able to function. It was like night and day.''
Former state Attorney General Dan Lungren opposed any attempt to carry out the 1996 ballot measure and shut down most of the state's informal marijuana distribution clubs.
But since Bill Lockyer took over as attorney general last year, the state's position has shifted toward support for the creation of a statewide marijuana ID program.
''When Proposition 215 passed, many prosecutors said they wouldn't enforce it,'' said San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Mitch Katz. ''But things are different in San Francisco.''
As a prosecutor, Hallinan, who describes himself as ''America's most progressive district attorney,'' has refused to carry out the government's War on Drugs, choosing instead to send minor drug offenders to diversion programs.
His stance on marijuana is shared by a growing number of law enforcement officials elsewhere in Northern California, where attitudes toward marijuana have a decidedly mellow tone. Similar marijuana ID programs already are in use in Mendocino County and Arcata.
To get the card in San Francisco, a doctor must sign a form agreeing to monitor the patient's medical condition. The cards are good for up to two years, and minors can get them too with approval from a parent or guardian. The program doesn't address how card-holders will obtain the drug. It merely shields them from prosecution -- and then only local prosecution.
Police officials have described it as an efficient way to distinguish medical users from recreational ones.
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