Sentencing of Medical Marijuana Patient Shows Need to Reform State Law

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

Skamania County Superior Court Judge E. Thompson Reynolds today sentenced a seriously ill medical marijuana patient to 60 days of electronic home detention, despite the fact that she had her doctor’s written recommendation for medical marijuana. The sentence for Sharon Tracy came after the Washington Supreme Court had rejected her doctor’s written recommendation for medical marijuana because the doctor was licensed in another state. Tracy, who is on public assistance, was also ordered to pay $3,000 in appeal costs plus the costs of her home detention.

“This case shows why the Legislature needs to act to ensure that qualified patients are able to benefit from the state’s medical marijuana law. Despite the clear intent of Washington’s voters, seriously ill people still are being prosecuted and convicted for using 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.

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.

Judge Reynolds did not allow her to raise her defense under the state’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act. He 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; the Washington Supreme Court voted 6-3 to uphold the conviction last November.

The ACLU and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal to the Washington 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.