Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Monday, January 20, 2020

Highlighting another troublesome spot at the intersection of marijuana reform and criminal justice systems

Regular readers know that, because of my work in the criminal justice arena, I often come to marijuana reform stories with an extra focus on how marijuana law and policy impact criminal justice system.  Though I am particularly interested in topics covered in my Federal Sentencing Reporter article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," regarding how marijuana reform efforts may be impacting criminal record expungement efforts, there are so many other interesting (and troublesome) spots where marijuana reform intersects with criminal law and practice.

This recent Marshall Project piece looks at one of these spots in a piece headlined "People on Probation and Parole Are Being Denied Perfectly Legal Medical Weed: Despite statewide legalization, some counties ban probationers and parolees from using medical marijuana. So the chronically ill turn to less effective and more addictive prescription drugs."  Here are excerpts:

Following years of research demonstrating that marijuana can be a life-changing treatment for people with cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, eating disorders, nausea and epilepsy, and that it is neither physically addictive nor an evident danger to public safety, the drug has been legalized for medical use in 33 states and for adults over 21 to smoke recreationally in 11.  Yet for most people on probation or parole — even in precisely these same states — drug testing remains the rule, and jail time the potential punishment.

The argument that many parole and probation authorities make for this seeming contradiction is that regardless of whether marijuana has been legalized in their state, it remains illegal at the federal level, and that if you’re under government supervision for committing a crime, you should at the very least have to follow all state and federal laws.  Some parole and probation officials also point out that they drug-test their own officers, so the people they oversee should be held to at least the same standard.

“I don’t know of any paroling authorities who are casual about marijuana — it’s part of their institutional culture, and old habits are hard to break,” said Edward E. Rhine, a former corrections official in multiple states and an expert on parole at the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School.  “Obviously most people couldn’t conceive of marijuana being allowed inside a prison, even if that prison is in a state where it has been legalized.”

A handful of states where marijuana is now legal, though, have taken action to make it available to people on probation or parole.  Arizona’s supreme court ruled in 2015 that medical marijuana patients cannot be arrested or jailed for taking their medication, even if they are under court supervision.  An Oregon appeals court in 2018 issued a similar decision.  Within Pennsylvania, where there isn’t yet any such ruling statewide, different counties have different policies....  In other states where there haven’t been major court cases, county courts and even individual probation officers are often responsible for deciding whether to drug-test — and possibly jail — those under their control. Some do so only when marijuana or drugs were related to someone’s underlying crime.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania [is] challenging the court rule in Lebanon County that prohibits parolees and probationers who have a prescription for medical marijuana from using it....   The ACLU’s position is that these counties’ rules contradict the letter and intent of Pennsylvania’s 2016 medical marijuana law, which protected medical marijuana patients from any criminal sanction.  The legislation expressly prohibited people in prison from possessing pot, but did not expressly exclude those on parole or probation. The lawyers also point out that people under court supervision can still use opioids with a prescription — which is far more of a public health concern in this day and age, especially in Pennsylvania....

In Colorado, where anyone can smoke a joint freely, a parolee named Mark Paulsen is still being tested for marijuana — even though he is about to die.  In 2009, Paulsen, a former mechanic who is an alcoholic, blacked out while drinking and attacked two acquaintances with a knife (neither was killed).  He was sentenced to prison for a decade, records show.  There, his hepatitis of the liver worsened, becoming end-stage cirrhosis by the time he was released last year.

Paulsen, 64, is now on parole outside Denver.  He is visibly ill, jaundiced and constantly bleeding.  He has peach-sized tumors in his abdomen, which he says make walking around feel like jumping up and down with heavy, jagged rocks in his belly.  And his nausea is so severe that he has at times gone weeks without eating solid food. “The always-there-ness” of the stomach pain, he said, “is what gets you.”

As he waits to die, there have been all the challenges familiar to people on parole.  He got out of prison with no money or health insurance, and has to go to the emergency room instead of to a specialist because he’s in such immediate pain, he says.  There, he has racked up insurmountable medical debt.

The only things that would ease his symptoms are opioids or medical marijuana, but the former is something that doctors have been wary to prescribe, amid a nationwide epidemic.  The latter, Paulsen believes, would seem the solution. (He also has been sober ever since his crime and is not “drug-seeking,” he emphasizes.)  Yet every morning, he has to call his parole office, he says.  If he is randomly selected that day, he must ride the bus an hour and a half, those sharp rocks in his stomach jostling, to take a drug test.  And if he fails one, he could be sent back to prison for whatever time he has left before dying.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections said that if a parolee has a prescription for medical marijuana, the agency in most instances is willing to “work with” that person to avoid being sanctioned for using it.  She later added, “Our parole team is going to reach out directly to Mr. Paulsen to see what assistance they can provide.”

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2020/01/highlighting-another-troublesome-spot-at-the-intersection-of-marijuana-reform-and-criminal-justice-s.html

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