S.C.: 2003 Medical Marijuana Law Applies Retroactively
November 27, 2006
Tina Bay, Metropolitan News (CA)
The Medical Marijuana Program applies retroactively to cases pending at the time of its 2003 enactment, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 6-1 decision, the justices held an Orange County man charged in 2001 with transporting and possessing marijuana for sale was entitled to a medical use defense under the MMP.
Concluding the trial judge’s refusal give a jury instruction on the defense was harmless error, however, they reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s ruling overturning Shaun Eric Wright’s convictions and granting him a new trial.
The justices agreed with appellate court decisions holding that the MMP, enacted to supplement and clarify the scope of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, applied retroactively because it lacked a saving clause indicating otherwise.
At the time of Wright’s trial, the only operative law was the 1996 Act, which provided physician-approved personal medical use was an affirmative defense to the crimes of possessing and cultivating marijuana, but did not address the crime of transportation.
Orange Superior Court Judge James A Stotler declined Wright’s request for a “compassionate use” defense jury instruction as to both the transportation and possession charges, reasoning that the amount of marijuana in his possession—19 ounces—precluded his claim that he had it only for personal medicinal use.
Among other things, Stotler instructed the jury that to convict Wright of possession of marijuana for sale, they had to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he possessed the drug with the specific intent to sell it. The jury convicted Wright on both transportation and possession charges.
In a 2-1 decision reversing the convictions, the Fourth District Court of Appeal said Stotler should not have barred the compassionate use defense based on its unlikelihood of success. Justice William Bedsworth, writing for Div. Three, said the issue of whether Wright possessed more marijuana than might have been reasonably necessary to relieve his symptoms was “a jury call.”
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Attorney General argued that Wright was not entitled to advance a compassionate use defense to a charge of transporting marijuana. Wright countered that the MMP applied in his case and provided an alternative ground to affirm the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, writing for the Supreme Court, said that under the MMP, Wright was a “qualified patient” exempt from criminal liability for transporting marijuana.
According to testimony, Wright had been using marijuana since 1991 to relieve chronic pain due to various injuries, and a physician whom he first consulted three months before his arrest had written a letter approving a self-regulating dose of marijuana to treat his ailments.
After his arrest, Wright again consulted the physician and told him he preferred to eat rather than smoke marijuana and when he ingested the drug, a pound of it usually lasted him two to three months. At Wright’s request, the doctor wrote a letter approving his use of a pound of marijuana every two to three months.
When Wright was arrested by Huntington Beach police—who stopped him based on an anonymous tip that his vehicle and a backpack in it smelled of marijuana—the officers found numerous bags of marijuana of various sizes, including one large bag of the drug weighing slightly over 1 pound. They also found an electronic scale, but no drug paraphernalia.
“He presented evidence at trial that he had purchased the marijuana found in his car on the morning of his arrest for his own personal medical use and was in the process of transporting the marijuana to his home when he was arrested. This testimony was sufficient to merit instruction on the defense to a charge of transporting marijuana set forth in the MMP.”
Ultimately, though, the absence of the requisite instruction had no effect on the outcome, the justice concluded.
“Under the instructions it was given, the jury had the option of convicting defendant for simple possession had it been convinced by his claim that the marijuana found in his possession was for his personal medicinal use,” Moreno said. “Instead, it found beyond a reasonable doubt that he possessed the drug with the specific intent to sell it.”
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter agreed that the MMP applied retroactively to Wright’s case and the absence of a compassionate use defense instruction did not affect the trial’s outcome, but asserted Wright presented insufficient evidence entitling him to the instruction
He did not identify himself as a medical marijuana user when arrested and had only two recent physician approvals to support his qualified patient claim, Baxter pointed out. Nor did he show that he had medical approval for the large amounts of marijuana found in his possession.
“[I]t was only after the arrest that defendant obtained Dr. Eidelman’s second approval, which conveniently endorsed the specific amount of marijuana that already had been found in defendant’s backpack and truck,” the justice said, adding that the various-sized baggies and electronic scale indicated the marijuana was packaged for sale.
Baxter noted that Stotler’s instructional rulings should not be characterized as erroneous based solely on law that was not in effect at the time he acted.
“Of course, we do not expect clairvoyance from our courts,” he said. “[E]ven assuming a [compassionate use] instruction was warranted, nunc pro tunc, by virtue of the later-enacted MMP, I would not imply criticism of a diligent and hard-pressed trial court by labeling its failure to anticipate this statute as ‘error.’”
The case is People v. Wright, 06 S.O.S. 5707.