County officials -- with help from the attorney general -- have begun studying a plan to dispense marijuana confiscated by drug agents to seriously ill patients, and hope to have a proposal ready for state approval by next year.
"There's a lag between law and life," said Board of Supervisors President Mike Nevin, a former police detective.
"We want to provide a model that can be copied across the state," he said.
Under the plan, the Sheriff's Department would issue identification cards to approved caregivers and patients with a doctor's recommendation for marijuana, who would then pick up the marijuana at places such as the county hospital pharmacy, Nevin said.
On any given day, there is at least $150,000 worth of marijuana in San Mateo County evidence rooms, Nevin said.
The marijuana would be photographed and identified for court purposes, then tested by health officials for use as medicine. If approved, it would be given free to people suffering from AIDS, cancer and other debilitating diseases.
A yearlong trial could begin as early as January, pending approval by the Legislature, Nevin said. He called the cost minimal and estimated that at least 1,200 county residents would be eligible to receive the marijuana.
He outlined the plan last week to Attorney General Dan Lungren, who assigned an attorney to help with the test.
The San Mateo County supervisors approved the plan unanimously in two separate votes this week.
Advocates of medical marijuana, however, called the proposal "insane," saying it violates the spirit of a law that should be interpreted to give legal protection to cultivators growing pot for medicinal use.
"They want to start a program based on people getting busted which discourages people to grow it legally," said Dennis Peron, who founded the Cannabis Cultivators Club in San Francisco and is credited with spearheading the campaign to legalize pot for medical use. "The county should grow it themselves."
Peron predicted San Mateo, like other counties that have flirted with setting up their own pot dispensaries, ultimately would shy away from the plan.
Last November, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the use and possession of marijuana by the seriously ill and their caregivers. Implementation of the law largely has been left up to individual counties and their district attorneys, leaving a patchwork quilt of regulations and enforcement.
Marijuana clubs have sprung up in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Los Angeles, where hundreds of patients gather to smoke and eat marijuana.
San Mateo supervisors have blocked a proposal by a county resident to open a marijuana club near Redwood City.
"We want to make sure that there is absolutely no black market element to it," Nevin said.
San Jose was the first city in the state to regulate and license marijuana dispensaries, although distributors initially had trouble meeting city guidelines that all of the medicinal marijuana be grown on the premises.
In Arcata, pot patients have police-issued cards to prove they are legal users.