“Spark the Discussion” is a monthly Legal Connection column highlighting the hottest trends in the emerging field of medical marijuana law. This column is brought to you by Vicente Sederberg, LLC, a full-service, community-focused medical marijuana law firm.
By Brian Vicente, Esq. and Rachelle Yeung
Leonard Charles Watkins has long suffered pancreatitis, which causes him debilitating chronic pain and for which he has been hospitalized three times. Watkins’ doctor recommended he use marijuana to reduce his suffering, so Watkins lawfully applied and qualified to be a medical marijuana patient. In February 2012, the Colorado Court of Appeals revoked Watkins’ ability to treat his illness with this state-approved medicine.
In 2008, Watkins pled guilty to a class three felony – unrelated to any controlled substances – for which he received six years’ probation. His probation conditions required that Watkins “not use or possess any narcotic, dangerous or abusable substance without a prescription,” and that he “not commit another offense” for the duration of his probation. However, after Watkins explained his medical condition to his judge, the trial court issued an order approving his use of medical marijuana.
The Arapahoe District Attorney filed a motion to reconsider, which the trial court denied in an extensive written order. The Prosecution then appealed the denial and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order, thus denying Watkins the use of this medicine.
Under Colorado law, trial courts are required to set as a condition of probation that probationers “not commit another offense.” C.R.S. 18-1.3-204(1). The Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion that “[t]he Colorado statute itself does not define the term [offense].” People v. Watkins, — P.3d —, 2012 WL 310776 (Colo. App. 2012). However, the Colorado Criminal Code – where the probation statutes can also be found – defines “offense” as “a violation of, or conduct defined by, any state statute for which a fine or imprisonment may be imposed.” C.R.S. 18-1-104(1). It is undisputed that Watkins’ use of medical marijuana was permissible within state law. Yet, despite this straightforward practice in statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals expanded the meaning of “offense” beyond its unambiguous definition and determined that it included violations of federal law.
To be clear, this is not a broad determination that federal law preempts state medical marijuana laws – simply that the Court of Appeals interpreted one particular statute to take federal prohibition into account.
Relying heavily on its recent decision in Beinor, the Court of Appeals affirmed that marijuana could not be legally “prescribed,” and that therefore Watkins’ lawful medical use of marijuana was a violation of the condition that he not use or possess “any narcotic, dangerous or abusable substance without a prescription.” Beinor v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office, 262 P.3d 970 (Colo. App. 2011). Without further reasoning, the Court of Appeals again echoed the Beinor opinion and held that Amendment 20, Colorado’s original medical marijuana law, did not extend a constitutional right to patients, but merely protected patients from criminal prosecution under limited circumstances.
Recently, the medical marijuana advocacy group, Sensible Colorado, teamed up with the ACLU to file an appeal on Watkins behalf. The Colorado Supreme Court denied this appeal and brandished Watkins, and other sick medical marijuana patients like him, probation violators if they use their doctor-recommended medicine. Specifically, the Watkins decision set forth a sweeping precedent that “neither Petitioner [Watkins] nor any other probationer in Colorado – regardless of the underlying offense, the circumstances of the probationer’s illness, or the trial court’s view – may use medical marijuana.” Petition for Writ of Certiori at 4, Watkins, — P.3d — (Colo. App. 2012).
Despite this seemingly bleak decision, medical marijuana patients are not always condemned to suffer while on probation. It is still the law that a trial court judge’s decision to not revoke probation cannot be appealed, regardless of any probation violations. It may be little comfort, but patients can still hope that sympathetic trial court judges will simply refuse to revoke their probation for medical marijuana use. The passage of Amendment 64, the Act to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is on the statewide ballot this November, may further prompt the judicial branch to align their decisions with the will of the People.