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California Supreme Court Upholds & Strengthens Medical Cannabis Laws
July 19, 2002
By Erowid
California V Myron Carlyle Mower, S094490 - Ct.App. 5 No. F030690

In an important victory for medical cannabis advocates in California, the state Supreme Court upheld the California Medical Marijuana Law (prop 215) in a unanimous ruling. The primary legal effect of their ruling is to change the state's standard for handling cannabis prosecutions which involve medical defenses.

Until this ruling, the state courts have read Prop 215 as providing an "affirmative defense" which defendent had to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" that they had a valid medical defense under the law. This means that when someone was charged with possession or cultivation of cannabis, they would have to prove in court that they were using the cannabis in a legally valid medical way by enough evidence that it would overwhelm the evidence the state provided against them. The "preponderance of the evidence" standard is common in civil cases and in a small subset of criminal law.

California's Supreme Court, however, unanimously held that the legal standard should instead be that defendents who wish to raise a medical marijuana defense need only "raise a reasonable doubt" that their use is medically valid. This major change shifts the burden of proof from the defendent (who used to have to prove their medical use was valid) to the state who now must prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the claimed medical use is invalid.
"We conclude that, under general principles of California law, the burden of proof as to the facts underlying the section 11362.5(d) defense may, and should, be allocated to a defendant, but the defendant should be required merely to raise a reasonable doubt as to those facts rather than to prove them by a preponderance of the evidence."
The decision stands out as being somewhat odd, however, because it creates a strange situation where a defendent is required to affirmatively show a reasonable doubt. All case law in the US is based on the concept of the prosecution having to prove their case 'beyond a reasonable doubt', not a defendent having the burden to 'prove the existence of a reasonable doubt'. It is unclear how this legal point will be played out in courts.

The defendent, Myron Mower, had further asked for an even stronger protection, which he called "complete immunity". His brief requested that the court provide a defense which would have not only allowed dismissal of charges by a judge if it was found that a valid medical defense for the defendent existed, but also would have required dismissals of cases in which law enforcement did not take adequate steps to ensure the person's use was not medically valid before arrest.

The CA Supreme Court rejected the "complete immunity" concept and instead said that their view is that prop 215 provides "limited immunity" which allows judges to dismiss cases in which there is no legal question of whether a valid medical use existed:
"But we also conclude that, in light of its language and purpose, [California's Medical Marijuana Law] reasonably must be interpreted to grant a defendant a limited immunity from prosecution, which not only allows a defendant to raise his or her status as a qualified patient or primary caregiver as a defense at trial, but also permits a defendant to raise such status by moving to set aside an indictment or information prior to trial on the ground of the absence of reasonable or probable cause to believe that he or she is guilty. "
Chief Justice George, writing for the court, went on to compare the possession of cannabis to the possession of any scheduled medicine:
"As a result of the enactment of section 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.
The following is probably only of interest to lawyers:
"In sum, the defense provided by section 11362.5(d) relates to the defendant's guilt or innocence, because it relates to an element of the crime of possession or cultivation of marijuana. Thus, this defense negates the element of the possession or cultivation of marijuana to the extent that the element requires that such possession or cultivation be unlawful."