Patchwork of Medical Pot Laws Brings Risks to Travelers

Posted March 5, 2012 in Criminal Law by Courtney Sherwood

Photo by Chuck Coker

Gary Storck has twice trekked from Wisconsin to the West Coast to get a piece of paper that – according to many attorneys – carries no value when he gets back home. He’s one of nearly 600 people to pick up a medical marijuana card in Oregon since the state began issuing the documents to non-residents in June 2010.

Although 16 states and Washington, D.C., allow use of marijuana for at least some medical conditions, permission to use the drug does not cross state lines, said Scot Candell, attorney with the Law Offices of Scot Candell in California.

“A state only has the authority to issue a card in its own jurisdiction,” Candell said. 

But Storck, an activist who has for many years advocated for legalization of medical cannabis, believes that obtaining an Oregon marijuana prescription helps legitimize his fight and could even protect him if he gets into trouble with the law.  He points to a 2004 case in which charges against a Wisconsin woman were dismissed after she produced a prescription from her California doctor.

In that case, Wisconsin police found Cheryl Lam in possession of marijuana that her doctor had prescribed to treat the chronic pain and other problems caused by a brown recluse spider bite. The doctor was in California, where pot can legally be used for a wide range of conditions. But Wisconsin and many other states, including others where medical cannabis use is banned, “provide that a person may lawfully possess a controlled substance if the person possesses the controlled substance with the lawful order of a medical practitioner,” Storck said.

Although Lam’s victory before a county judge did not create a legal precedent throughout the rest of Wisconsin, Storck believes that her example – and stories he’s heard about police choosing not to arrest marijuana users able to produce a doctor’s note – show the value of his yearly trip to renew his Oregon card.

Storck, 56, was born with glaucoma and a congenital heart defect, and now also experiences chronic pain linked to arthritis. The use of vaporized marijuana relieves the eye pressure caused by glaucoma and controls his pain, while allowing him to remain more active than other prescription medications might, he said.

Though Storck may be correct that some police will look the other way when presented with an out-of-state medical marijuana card, and that some judges could even be swayed, attorneys warn that people should not count on a card or a doctor’s note to protect them when they head out on the road.

The 72,000 Oregon residents who have cards, as well as the 600 non-state residents who visited the state to get a card, only can count on legal protections while in Oregon, and even then those protections are less robust than many people realize. An Oregon — or any other state’s — medical marijuana card will provide no legal protections in California, for example, even though California has some of the most lax cannabis laws in the country. Likewise, a California physician’s recommendation is not a guarantee of safe passage in Colorado, Arizona, Washington or any other state.

Scot Candell

Because the laws vary from state to state, Candell recommends doing research if you plan to make medical use of marijuana while traveling. You may need to see a physician in the state you’re visiting to get a recommendation or a prescription card. Some states restrict medical marijuana use to people with conditions like glaucoma, cancer and HIV, while others allow doctors freedom  to prescribe its use for a broader range of conditions, including anxiety and depression. Some states allow visitors  to use medical pot, while others limit its use to residents.  Most states, of course, still do not allow use of marijuana for any reason.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or  NORML, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, provides a state-by-state guide to marijuana laws.

Following state law is not always enough to protect yourself from legal trouble related to marijuana use, Candell warned. Possession and use of marijuana remain federal crimes. If you cross paths with federal law enforcement or venture on to federally owned land – like a national park, military base or courthouse – you could still get in trouble. And some cities or counties place restrictions on marijuana use that are stricter than state law, he added.

“Make sure that you comply with the law for the location you are in,” Candell said.

If you find yourself in trouble with local or federal authorities, it’s time to bring in legal representation. A criminal lawyer can help you understand the law and best respond to any charges.

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