Justices rule on transport of medicinal pot

November 26, 2006

Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO — People charged with transporting marijuana may avoid conviction if they can show that the drug was for their personal medical use, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a 6-1 decision, the state high court said California's medical marijuana law protects patients who transport even relatively large quantities of the drug if they can show that the amount was consistent with their medical needs and recommended by a licensed physician.

The court interpreted a 2004 law passed by the Legislature to address uncertainties that followed voter passage of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The attorney general's office said the ruling would affect a handful of cases.

Monday's decision "expands the defenses that can be used for medical marijuana," said Maureen J. Shanahan, who represented the defendant in the case.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said prosecutors had hoped the court would make it more difficult for marijuana sellers to use a medical defense but said the court's clarification of the law was helpful.

The court reached its decision in the case of Shaun Eric Wright, who was arrested in Huntington Beach in 2001 while carrying more than a pound of marijuana in his truck. The stash included several small baggies, two large bags and an electronic scale.

Wright was charged with possessing marijuana for sale and with transporting it.

Wright had asked that jurors be instructed that he did not commit a crime if they determined the marijuana was recommended by a doctor. A physician testified that he had recommended Wright use marijuana to alleviate pain, abdominal problems and emotional stress.

The doctor said Wright preferred eating marijuana, which requires a larger amount to get the same effect as smoking it. The doctor said Wright needed a pound of marijuana every two to three months.

The trial judge ruled that the medical marijuana law passed by voters did not apply because the amount was too large and Wright was transporting it. But the judge permitted Wright to present evidence of medical use to rebut the possession for sale charge.

Wright was convicted of transportation and possession for sale. An appeals court overturned the conviction on the grounds that the jury should have been given a medical marijuana instruction.

The California Supreme Court agreed that Wright was entitled to such an instruction but refused to overturn the conviction. The court said the judge's error was "harmless" because the jury had the option of convicting Wright only of possession, a misdemeanor. Instead, the jury "found beyond a reasonable doubt that he possessed the drug with the specific intent to sell it," wrote Justice Carlos Moreno for the majority.

Justice Marvin Baxter wrote separately, saying he agreed that Wright's conviction should stand but disagreed that Wright was entitled to a medical marijuana defense.

"The overwhelming evidence that defendant possessed the marijuana with the intent of selling it precluded a reasonable doubt as to its personal medical purpose," Baxter wrote. "This evidence prominently included the electronic scale, the presence of which the defendant never explained."


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