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The Truth About Medical Marijuana Card Privacy

Legalization Nation answers readers' questions about the vulnerability of their personal information.



I am a teacher that is credentialed in the State of California. I have used marijuana for years, both recreationally and to help with anxiety and insomnia. I would like to get a medical card and know some other teachers who have done so. However, I am very paranoid about the fact that federal law still prohibits this, even if a state tolerates it. I am concerned that my name would be on a "list" that may prevent me from getting future credentials elsewhere in the US. How worried should I be about this and should I just continue to get my supply from a friend?

Mr. Green

Got a friend who just got his rec. He's now slightly nervous about how it's tied to his driver's license number. I went through this too and convinced myself it wasn't an issue, but can only offer vague reassurances. Convince him that the following is not possible:

1) he gets pulled over for speeding; 2) cop runs his license; 3) cop comes back to the car and spills the beans to his wife about how he's a "pothead."

For a Friend

I talked to two marijuana lawyers and the gist of it is this: The law is on your side when it comes to the privacy of your medical records, but don't accidentally out yourself by failing an employer's drug test, getting a DUI, or Facebooking pictures of nugs.

A bit of quick background: You need a valid doctor's recommendation to lawfully possess and grow marijuana in California. Those with a recommendation can also get a voluntary California state medical marijuana patient identification card.

Let's start with the issue of privacy at a doctor's office or clinic, where you'll get your recommendation. "Technically, a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana is very private, since HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] makes it nearly impossible for even law enforcement to obtain private patient records," wrote Joe Elford, staff lawyer for medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, in an email.

According to Bay Area marijuana attorney Lauren Vazquez, patients who see their primary care provider, a specialist, or a doctor at a marijuana clinic are also protected under very strong doctor-patient confidentiality statutes. "Whatever you say in the doctor's office is completely private, and there really is no way to get that data," she said. "Doctors aren't allowed to give that information out to anybody" — including the police, the Department of Motor Vehicles, or companies that conduct background checks, she added.

But since most people can't grow their own medical marijuana, they get it from a collective, sometimes called a dispensary, which operate from private residences and public storefronts. To join a collective, patients must usually provide valid state identification and a valid medical marijuana recommendation, and fill out some forms. Patient data obtained by collectives is protected under strict California laws that apply to all businesses that take personal information, Vazquez said.

"Even just your driver's license, name, and social security number — laws in California require businesses to protect that information and follow disclosure guidelines if information is accidentally released," she said.

But what about getting a state medical marijuana card? You get a California weed card by first getting a recommendation and then applying for the card through your county. The county verifies your recommendation with the doctor and orders your state card, which contains your picture and a number.

Your personal information is also quite protected at the county and state level, lawyers said. "The state ID card program has several provisions affirming that patients' records should be maintained privately," Elford wrote. "Again, employers should not be able to discover whether one is a state ID card holder."

California public employees could serve up to six months in jail and fined $1,000 for fishing in county medical marijuana files, Vazquez said. "If anybody releases that information, they can be prosecuted," she said.

Patients who have a state medical marijuana card cannot be arrested for certain marijuana crimes, and cannot be denied a professional license, Vazquez continued. So she advises lawyers who are mulling over whether or not to get a card to obtain one — it puts them on the right side of the law.

Of course, teachers still have to pass a drug test, and marijuana can be detected by urinalysis for up to sixty days after consumption in heavy users.

Other caveats: Cops running your license won't be able to see that you're a patient, but they can use their own senses to detect impaired driving or marijuana in a vehicle. Don't go down that road. If you intend to use a medical marijuana defense, that will appear in court records, which are public.

There's also the chance the dispensary you visit will get raided by federal or state authorities, and its records will be seized. In that case, the cops will have your information, along with thousands of other fish too small to fry, Vazquez said. "They'll have that info, but they haven't acted on it in the past," she said. "There is no central database to look up any patients on."

Lastly, employers can and do check social networks and personal references during background checks, so if you want to have a career in the CIA, you probably shouldn't make "lonelystoner420" your Gmail address.

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