The Colorado Supreme Court just ruled that denying a criminal defendant the right to use medical marijuana while serving probation is a violation of the state's constitution.
The court's ruling is the final word on a case that began in August of 2016, when El Paso County resident Alysha Walton was arrested for an alcohol-related DUI and sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. During the trial, Walton presented documentation proving that she was legally allowed to use medical cannabis in Colorado. Despite this documentation, El Paso County Judge Karla Hansen prohibited Walton from using her medicine on probation because she did not bring a doctor to court to testify in her defense.
Walton appealed, but a district court upheld Judge Hansen's ruling. This Monday, the state Supreme Court unanimously agreed that both lower courts violated Walton's right to use medical marijuana, which is guaranteed by the state constitution.
“We conclude that the statute’s plain language unambiguously creates a presumption that a defendant may use authorized medical marijuana while serving a term of probation,” the justices wrote in their ruling.
According to the state's medical marijuana statute, a defendant cannot be prevented from using medical marijuana unless the prosecution can supply evidence showing that this prohibition is necessary. In Walton's case, the judge did the exact opposite, by placing the burden of proof on the defendant.
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In their ruling, the justices explained that the court must “make particularized findings, based on material evidence, that prohibiting this defendant’s otherwise-authorized medical marijuana use is necessary and appropriate to promote statutory sentencing goals. Because the county court made no such findings here, the supreme court disapproves of the district court’s order affirming the county court’s decision.”
Although the ruling is in Walton's favor, it does not directly affect her at all, as she had already served her year of probation before the appeal came to trial. The justices still decided to rule in the case, though, in order to set a precedent for future individuals who may find themselves in the same situation. Deputy State Public Defender Cayce Duncan said that she's “glad the court ruled on this case so that other citizens in El Paso County and across Colorado are not subject to the unlawful probation conditions imposed by the county court judge in this case,” according to the Denver Post.
While this ruling will clear up a number of similar cases that have occurred across the state, attorney's believe it still leaves important questions unanswered. The ruling establishes that medical marijuana use is protected under the state constitution, but it does not assert that medical cannabis possession is also protected. This loophole could allow judges to deny defendants the right to possess medical marijuana while on probation, potentially kicking-off another legal debate that could find its way back to the state Supreme Court.