Judges Are Not Doctors: Why the ACLU Is Challenging a Ban on Medical Marijuana for People on Probation
By Sara Rose, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU of PA
Melissa Gass has experienced daily, life-threatening seizures since she developed epilepsy at age 10. Ashley Bennett has endured symptoms of PTSD from repeated childhood trauma, and Andrew Koch has suffered debilitating pain since his hand and vertebrae were crushed in a car accident. Each of them found relief thanks to medical marijuana, and since Pennsylvania passed a law allowing people with their conditions to use the drug, they have been able to use it legally.
Medical marijuana has transformed their lives, allowing them to work and care for their children. It has also allowed them to stop taking prescription medicines that made it difficult for them to function or were highly addictive. But the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas has taken this life-altering remedy away, telling them they can no longer use medical marijuana because they are on probation.
The problem with the court’s policy is not just that judges are substituting their opinions for that of patients’ doctors, which is bad enough, but that it disregards the broad protections that the General Assembly provided to medical marijuana patients when it passed the state Medical Marijuana Act. The Act protects medical marijuana patients, as well as their caregivers and doctors, from:
arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, including civil penalty or disciplinary action by a Commonwealth licensing board or commission, solely for lawful use of medical marijuana or manufacture or sale or dispensing of medical marijuana, or for any other action taken in accordance with this act.
The law clearly protects medical marijuana patients from being denied probation, which is considered a privilege in Pennsylvania. So threatening to revoke a person’s probation if they lawfully use medical marijuana under state law — which is what the Lebanon County court has done — violates the law.
That’s why we sued the 52nd Judicial District, which includes the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas and its probation department, on behalf of Melissa, Ashley, and Andrew, and asked the Commonwealth Court to stop it from enforcing its policy against our clients and all other medical marijuana patients in the county.
Under Pennsylvania law, probation conditions must be reasonably related to the rehabilitation of the defendant. If they are not, the condition is illegal and cannot be enforced. There is no basis, either in law or common sense, to deny people medicine that the state has recognized as a legitimate treatment for their medical conditions. In fact, it goes against the goals of rehabilitation, making it more difficult for our clients to work and care for their children. It will also lead people in severe pain, like Andrew, to use far more dangerous and addictive opioid medications, which the court has no policy against.
Pennsylvania has set up a comprehensive program that makes it possible for people with serious medical conditions to use a treatment, medical marijuana, that has been proven to alleviate their symptoms without fear of being arrested, denied probation, or losing custody of their children or their jobs. Pennsylvania courts have no authority to prohibit people from using a lawful medication simply because they disagree with the legislature’s decision. Judges are supposed to apply the law, not violate it.