Ever since Pennsylvania joined the modern world by legalizing and regulating medical marijuana in 2018, a frequent question for Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys is whether medical marijuana patients would be violating their probation conditions simply by using cannabis a manner consistent with a physician’s recommendation. The simple answer was “it depends on the county,” as there was no uniform policy in the commonwealth’s 67 counties. District Attorneys, Probation Departments and judges in most counties took the logical position that cannabis use would be allowed for defendants with a valid medical marijuana card, while those who used cannabis without a card would be in violation of the standard probation condition forbidding the use of alcohol or non-prescribed drugs. A minority of counties insisted that lawful medical marijuana use under Pennsylvania law would still constitute a probation violation, because possession of a cannabis is still illegal for the time being under antiquated federal law.
On June 17, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court settled the issue, ruling unanimously that those supervised by county probation and parole departments can use medical marijuana as long as they have procured a medical marijuana card. Anytime you see a unanimous decision before either a state supreme court or the Supreme Court of the United States, the holding is generally a no-brainer.
The issue made its way to the commonwealth’s highest court when the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging Lebanon County’s policy that denied herbal medicine to sick people on probation. It appears that the ACLU bolstered its argument by deliberately picking three sympathetic plaintiffs who absolutely need medical marijuana to function. The strategy worked, with these three plaintiffs helping to improve the lives of thousands of other patients.
This ruling should help scores of recovering opiate addicts who have been using medical marijuana to prevent relapse. The total abstinence approach traditionally favored by probation departments will no longer be permitted. This is certainly a good thing. If a former heroin addict turns into a pothead but never shoots up or snorts heroin again, that is a victory for both the recovering addict and society at large.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania and long-time marijuana legalization proponent.