Man's Conviction Upheld In Medical Marijuana Case

November 26, 2006


An Orange County man's felony conviction for transporting marijuana was upheld Monday by the California Supreme Court despite its ruling that later law allowing a medical marijuana defense for transportation applies retroactively.

The decision in the case of Shaun Eric Wright, 43, resolves an important question regarding the Medical Marijuana Program, legislation adopted in 2004 to promote the implementation of Proposition 215 that in 1996 legalized marijuana for medicinal use, Nathan Barankin of the state Attorney General's office said.

That question, Barankin said, is whether the law applies retroactively "and it does resolve that issue for state law purposes."

However, it only affects a handful of cases that were brought before the 2004 law took affect and are still "open," or under appeal, Barankin said.

Wright, who was found with more than a pound of marijuana in his truck during a search by Huntington Beach police on Sept. 20, 2001, was not allowed to raise a medical marijuana defense.

A doctor testified that he had prescribed the drug for Wright, and Wright testified that he took the drug for a shoulder injury that prevented him from working as a carpenter, and abdominal pain from a stomach parasite.

Wright testified that he began using marijuana for his medical condition in 1991.

The prosecution argued that the amount of marijuana recovered in the truck indicated more than enough for personal use, that it was broken up into separate packages and that Wright had an electronic scale, which he never explained.

The defense argued that Wright needed higher amounts of marijuana because he ate it rather than smoked it and that it was broken up into packages by potency for different uses.

The Supreme Court found that the jury deciding Wright's case should have been allowed to consider a medical marijuana defense, but that the error was "harmless," meaning it would not have affected the jury's decision.

The court found that the jury had been given the option of convicting Wright of the lesser crime of simple marijuana possession, but convicted him of possessing marijuana for sale and transporting marijuana.

"In such cases the issue should not be deemed to have been removed from the jury's consideration since it has been resolved in another context, and there can be no prejudice to the defendant since the evidence that would support a finding that only the lesser offense was committed has been rejected by the jury," the decision stated.

Barankin said that the justices "said that even if he was given the opportunity to assert (the medical marijuana) defense, the jury's conviction would not have changed."

The decision sends the case back to the Court of Appeal, where other issues raised by Wright could result in the conviction being overturned, his attorney Maureen Shanahan said.

Wright was sentenced to a year in county jail and placed on three years formal probation, Shanahan said.

Barankin said he did not anticipate the conviction would be overturned. "In our view, this was the strongest legal argument he had to make," Barankin said.

Shanahan said the appellate court decision in the Wright decision also found that the 2004 legislation was retroactive, but a different circuit found the opposite.

"That was the reason the court took our case," she said. Barankin said the state Supreme Court "saw the case as an opportunity to clarify the law on the application of medical marijuana defenses."

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