Court Ruling Points to Need to Clarify State's Medical Marijuana Law

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The Washington Supreme Court today rejected a seriously ill woman’s plea to use medical marijuana to alleviate chronic pain, even though she had a doctor’s written recommendation. The 6-3 ruling points to the need to clarify the state’s medical marijuana law to ensure that patients are able to exercise their rights under the law.

“Despite the clear intent of Washington’s voters, seriously ill people still are being prosecuted and convicted for using medical marijuana. The Legislature needs to act to ensure that qualified patients are able to benefit from medical marijuana,” said ACLU legislative director Jennifer Shaw.

In 1998, Washington voters adopted by initiative the Medical Use of Marijuana Act to enable ill people with a medical recommendation to use marijuana as medicine. The 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 physician recommendations to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, but who were not allowed to defend themselves in court using the medical marijuana law.

The ACLU is working with Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles to introduce legislation in the 2007 Legislature to improve the law. The legislation will clarify legal standards for physician recommendations of medical marijuana, including the ability of patients with out-of-state physicians to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Today’s ruling stemmed from the case of patient 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 the state’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act. The court ruled that her California medical marijuana card was not valid in Washington, even though out-of-state doctors may write prescriptions for stronger medications. Tracy was found guilty; an appeals court upheld the conviction.

The ACLU and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal to the state supreme court, saying that Tracy should have been allowed to use Washington’s medical marijuana law in her defense. The brief was written by the ACLU’s Andy Ko and Alison Chinn Holcomb and WACDL’s Suzanne Elliott.