A federal official with an anti-drug agency has asked California for demographic data about the 86,723 patients who have obtained medical marijuana user cards, raising privacy alarms among cannabis advocates.
Dale Quigley, deputy coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, asked the Department of Public Health on Aug. 1 for the age, gender and stated affliction—but not the identity—of every Californian who received a card between 2012 and 2016, according to a copy of Quigley’s email obtained by The Recorder.
Ed Shemelya, coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, said in an interview that his office is seeking the anonymized data from cannabis-legal states such as California to study “usage rates” among different age groups. He said the only agenda behind the data collection is to “provide objective information about … this drug.”
“That’s it,” Shemelya said. “It’s a big to-do over nothing.”
Quigley did not get the information.
In an email response sent that same day, an unidentified person with the state’s Medical Marijuana Program said the health department only administers the ID card program “and does not have any information regarding dispensaries.” The email sender suggested Quigley contact cities and counties that license dispensaries.
The data requests have spooked some marijuana dispensaries and advocates, who fear the information could be used to disparage legalized medical use or, in cases where a malady is rare, actually identify a user.
“Until Jeff Sessions clarifies the [Department of Justice] position on respecting state cannabis laws, no state should share any cannabis data with the feds,” said Steve DeAngelo, the co-founder and CEO of Harborside Health Center dispensary in Oakland. “History—and Sessions’ own words—teaches us their intentions are not good.”
The National Marijuana Initiative is a project of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, which was established by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The institute has issued a number of regional reports critical of states that have legalized recreational marijuana use.
Sessions, the U.S. attorney general, cited those reports in letters sent in August to officials in Colorado and Washington, suggesting they aren’t doing enough to keep marijuana away from minors and within state boundaries. Elected leaders in those states said the government’s findings were often outdated and based on incomplete information.
‘Federal Fishing Expedition’
California’s medical marijuana identification card registry is voluntary and offered as a way for dispensaries and law enforcement to verify patients and their caregivers. Experts say the number of medical users in the state is likely far higher than the figure represented by those who have registered.
“This type of federal fishing expedition is exactly why the vast majority of qualified patients have not sought to obtain official patient IDs, and why they rely on third-party IDs issued through their recommending physician’s offices,” said Khurshid Khoja, a California lawyer who focuses on the cannabis industry.
Although California administers the voluntary registry, individual counties issue the ID cards. Samantha Mott, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency has not fielded a request for cardholder data.
“Even if we did, we don’t keep that information,” she said. “We have it as long as we need it to issue the card and then we get rid of it. We just don’t keep it.”