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County sued for denying medical cannabis to probationers

Published on October 9, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020

HARRISBURG, PA — Three medical cannabis patients on Tuesday challenged a Pennsylvania county’s policy that people on probation and other forms of court supervision may not use the drug, even if they are in the state registry.

Lebanon County's policy gives patients 'a choice between risking severe health consequences or going to jail.'

The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court that seeks to stop a policy imposed last month in Lebanon County.

The plaintiffs argue the policy contradicts legal-immunity provisions in the state’s 2016 medical marijuana law. They are asking for a halt to the policy while their case proceeds. The patients are seeking class action status.

More than 60 patients affected

ACLU lawyers said they may expand the litigation to cover similar policies in some other counties.

“More than sixty people with serious medical issues in Lebanon County must now decide whether to discontinue their lawful use of a medical treatment that safely and effectively alleviates their serious medical conditions, or risk revocation of their probation and possible incarceration,” said the lawsuit against the Lebanon County judicial district, which includes the county probation office. “It is a choice between risking severe health consequences or going to jail.”

The Lebanon County judicial district is being represented by lawyers for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which declined comment.

Other counties have similar bans

ACLU lawyer Vic Walczak said there are similar policies in place in several other counties, but not in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.

“Many of the counties, we don’t know,” Walczak said at a news conference. “So if there are people out there who can tell us that other counties are not complying with the law, we’d like to hear from them as well.”

County cops enforcing federal law?

Lebanon County President Judge John Tylwalk signed the Sept. 1 policy that said cannabis remains illegal under federal law, and that the court and probation department “should not knowingly allow violations of the law to occur.”

The county's policy doesn't prevent those on court supervision from using opioids, antipsychotics or riskier medications.

It gave medical cannabis patients under court supervision a month to discontinue use.

In a Sept. 16 letter to Tylwalk, ACLU lawyers warned that the policy will result in people going without treatment or being forced to use other drugs, such as opioids. The lawsuit notes that the county’s new policy does not prevent those on court supervision from using opioids, antipsychotics and “other medications that pose a significant risk of harm.”

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Epilepsy patient forced to discontinue meds

One of the plaintiffs said she uses medical cannabis to treat epilepsy and has suffered seizures with greater frequency since being compelled to follow the policy. She is on probation for a 2016 simple assault, the lawsuit said.

Another plaintiff said she needs the drug for post-traumatic stress disorder, abdominal pain and nausea and is on probation for cannabis possession. The third plaintiff, who uses medical cannabis for back pain, is on probation for cannabis possession and driving on a suspended license, the lawsuit said.

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law permits legal use of the drug for a range of medical conditions, following certification from a doctor. It says patients cannot be “subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner” for the lawful use of medical marijuana.

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