ACLU Supports Medical Marijuana Patient’s Right to a Fair Trial

News Release: 
Sunday, March 20, 2011

The ACLU of Washington has filed a brief in support of a medical marijuana patient convicted of possession and cultivation of marijuana, even though she had a written medical recommendation to use it as medicine. The Washington Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on June 8.

The court is considering an appeal by Sharon Tracy, a resident of Skamania County. Tracy suffers from chronic pain from migraines and hip deformities, and uses marijuana to control it and to avoid using addictive prescription medicines. Tracy lived part-time in California, where she took care of her ill mother, and had a recommendation from a doctor in that state to use medical marijuana.

During an unrelated visit by a Skamania Sheriff’s detective in May 2003, Tracy admitted using marijuana and cultivating a few plants in her home. The home was later searched and she was arrested and charged with possession and manufacturing of marijuana.

A trial court did not allow her to raise her defense under Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act, a law passed by voters in 1998 that allows ill people with a medical recommendation to use marijuana as medicine. The court ruled that her California medical marijuana card was not valid in Washington state, even though out-of-state doctors may write prescriptions for stronger medications. With evidence of marijuana possession and cultivation, and no opportunity to explain in court its needed medical use, Tracy’s attorney determined that a trial by jury would be pointless and agreed to let a judge decide the case. Tracy was found guilty; an appeals court upheld the conviction.

The ACLU-WA and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a friend-of-the-court brief on May 18, arguing that Tracy should have been allowed to use Washington’s medical marijuana law in her defense. The brief argues that the sufficiency of Tracy’s California medical marijuana card should have been decided by a jury. But because the court chose to interpret Washington marijuana law narrowly, Tracy was in effect denied her constitutional right to a trial by jury.

 “The Medical Use of Marijuana Act should be interpreted broadly, in a way that protects ill people from unfair prosecution,” said Andy Ko, director of the ACLU-WA Drug Policy Reform Project. “Instead, the courts have chosen to read the law very narrowly, adding risk to the lives of people with debilitating illnesses. This was not the voters’ purpose when they approved the act.”

Washington state’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act protects qualifying patients and their caregivers from being punished in state courts for growing, possessing, and using marijuana, but it does not technically protect them from arrest or prosecution. This discrepancy has led to the arrest and conviction of people who had medical recommendations to use medicinal marijuana, but who were not allowed to defend themselves in court using the medical marijuana laws.

The ACLU is urging the state legislature to clarify the medical marijuana law to better allow patients their chance to defend themselves in court, and to protect physicians’ ability to advise their patients about medical use of marijuana.