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California: Bringing Medical Marijuana Into Jail Is Not A Felony

by John E. Dannenberg

The California Court of Appeal held that because California’s 1996 voter-approved Medical Marijuana Program Act (Proposition 115) permits a citizen to possess marijuana for medical use, bringing such approved marijuana into jail could not be punished as a felony under Penal Code § 4573.5 (which generally proscribes “drugs, other than controlled substances” from being brought into a jail).

James Harris, whose doctor qualified him to use medical marijuana, surrendered himself to the Lake County Jail on other matters. He had previously written county officials explaining that he would need his cannabis wafers and olive oil for his chronic pain and asked for accommodation. However, when deputies booked him, he was charged with and subsequently convicted of the felony of bringing a controlled substance into a county jail.

In tension here were California’s Medical Marijuana Act (Health and Safety Code §§ 11362.5, .7 et seq.) and the penal provision against bringing controlled substances into a jail. On appeal, the court held that the evil intended to be controlled by the penal provision was illicit use of drugs in jail, while the Marijuana Act intended state-sanctioned medical use of cannabis without regard for one’s criminal status. The court noted that Harris’ conviction was for the limited act proscribed in § 4573.5, namely bringing into a jail of such substances.

The court first determined that marijuana is a controlled substance under California laws. However, parsing § 4573.5, the court found that its reference to “any drugs, other than controlled substances” must mean that marijuana is not covered by that section, since it is undisputedly “controlled.” The court rebuffed the state’s argument that thus permitting medical marijuana into jails would be an absurd construction of the competing laws, observing that the Marijuana Act itself announced the intent of the law to not subject such users to criminal prosecution or sanction (H&S § 11362.5(b) (1) (B)). The court suggested that jail and prison authorities could use their rulemaking powers to craft appropriate regulations to accommodate the medically needy without opening Pandora’s box to illicit drug importation. Accordingly, the court reversed the conviction. See: People v. Harris (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 1456.

Separately, on January 16, 2007, the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) issued a memorandum to all staff warning them that because federal law prohibits the use of marijuana, and because federal law preempts state law, CDCR would not permit any employee to be under the influence of medical marijuana while on the job. Any employee testing positive for marijuana, medical or not, would be disciplined.

And on March 15, 2007, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the supremacy of the federal drug law over California’s Medical Marijuana Act in a case involving a woman treating pain for her brain tumor.

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Related legal case

People v. Harris