Friday, July 19, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
By Maura Dolan
Los Angeles Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Ailing Californians who use or grow marijuana with a physician's approval are protected by state law from prosecution, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously yesterday.
In its first review of a 1996 medical-marijuana initiative, the court said medical users who are arrested may have the charges dismissed without a trial if a doctor has approved use of the drug.
The ruling overturns the felony conviction of a blind diabetic who was arrested after police spotted marijuana in his front yard in Twain Harte in Tuolumne County.
"The possession and cultivation of marijuana is no more criminal — so long as its conditions are satisfied — than the possession and acquisition of any prescription drug with a physician's prescription," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the court.
Until yesterday, all major rulings on Proposition 215, the state's medical marijuana law, have been by federal courts based on federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no medical exception for the use of marijuana under federal law.
But users and growers in California generally are prosecuted in state courts, which must follow yesterday's ruling.
Gerald Uelmen, a University of Santa Clara law professor who argued the case for defendant Myron Carlyle Mower, said the decision will reduce prosecutions throughout the state.
Since 56 percent of voters approved Proposition 215, dozens of Californians have been arrested on marijuana charges despite claims of medical need, he said.
"It is a wonderful victory for patients," Uelmen said.
He said he was hopeful the ruling will discourage police from arresting people who grow marijuana and have a doctor's note recommending its use.
Ann Brick, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which also argued for Mower, praised the court for being "quite protective of the rights of medical marijuana patients."
"The court is making very clear that it understands the people of California wanted to confer real protection to the medical users of marijuana," Brick said.
The state Attorney General's Office, which represented Tuolumne County in the appeal, said it was reviewing the decision.
California is one of nine states with medical-marijuana laws. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington are the others. The decision yesterday was the first by a state Supreme Court on such a law, Uelmen said.
The ruling overturns a state appeals' court decision that said the voter initiative merely gave defendants the right to present a medical defense during a trial.
That ruling, by a Court of Appeal in Fresno, also said that users or growers must show by a preponderance of the evidence that they had the marijuana solely for medical purposes.
Under yesterday's ruling, a grower or user can present evidence of a
physician's approval, such as a note on a prescription pad, to a judge
to have charges dismissed. If the amount of marijuana involved was considered
large or the doctor's approval questionable, the defendant could face a
trial to determine whether the marijuana was purely for his or her medical
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