Blog Post

Arizona - Land of Birther Bills and John McCain - Paving The Way For Patients' Rights

Joy Haviland

Last week, in a pair of unanimous decisions, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors and courts cannot ban qualified patients on parole or probation from using medical marijuana. This is one example where Arizona leads the nation in protecting patients who use medical marijuana.

Nationwide legal access to medical marijuana is inevitable. At last count, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Several more states are considering bills that would allow patients access to medical marijuana. Even federal lawmakers are considering the issue.

Yet despite this momentum, very few of these laws provide any real safeguards for patients who use marijuana for medical purposes.

It is a well-established fact that medical marijuana alleviates the symptoms of many serious medical conditions. Still most laws treat patients who use doctor-recommended medical marijuana dramatically different from patients who use any other doctor-recommended medicine.

The Republican-led state, intentionally or not, is paving the way for better patient protections. Arizona’s 2010 Medical Marijuana Act contains expansive language that broadly protects patients from both criminal and civil discrimination—protecting patients from “penalty in any manner, or denial of any right or privilege.” (Although an Arizona court recently decided that this law doesn’t give drivers immunity if they test positive for any marijuana metabolites.)

While some states have passed laws that protect patients from discrimination, Arizona goes even further. For example, employers in Arizona cannot impose zero-tolerance drug policies. Indeed, a positive drug test for cannabis metabolites cannot automatically be grounds to discipline an employee.

Only two other states—Delaware and Minnesota—go so far to protect patient-employees. In other states, employers are free to impose zero-tolerance drug policies, which places patient-employees at risk of losing their jobs.

A Wal-Mart Associate of the Year in Michigan was fired after testing positive for marijuana, which he legally used to treat sinus cancer and an inoperable brain tumor. A federal court threw out the lawsuit because the state medical marijuana law did not restrict employment decisions.

Patients may also face discrimination from landlords, child welfare officials, and medical providers. They should not be forced to make impossible choices—between alleviating their often debilitating symptoms and complying with probation or parole, earning a living, retaining custody of their children, or keeping their home.

But now seriously ill patients who are on probation or parole in Arizona no longer have to make that choice. Keenan Reed-Kaliher obtained a medical marijuana card in Arizona to treat his chronic pain. But his probation officer told him that he could not possess or use marijuana while on probation, even if it were a medical necessity. The Arizona Supreme Court disagreed.

While Arizona may be the latest to consider the implications of parole on the right to use medical marijuana, it won’t be the last.

California law says that a qualified patient on parole or probation may use medical marijuana only if a court grants permission. A pending bill in Colorado would allow patients on parole to use medical marijuana in most cases. (This was introduced after a court ruled that patients on parole could not use medical marijuana.) A bill recently passed by the Maryland House of Delegates would prohibit punishment for persons on parole or probation who use marijuana, for either medical or recreational purposes.

If these reasonable protections can be law in Arizona—the land of birther bills and John McCain—other states must find reason to follow suit.

Joy Haviland is a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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