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HARRISBURG — Judges on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that county judges can’t use blanket orders to bar people on probation from using medical marijuana.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a group of Lebanon County residents.

Lebanon County’s policy has been on hold since the state Supreme Court issued a temporary halt to its enforcement in October, in response to the ACLU’s lawsuit. Thursday’s ruling permanently overturns the policy and applies to every county in the state.

“Although most county courts have allowed registered patients to use medical marijuana while on probation, there are still some that ban medical marijuana for people on community supervision,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Any attempt to enforce those policies will be challenged.”

In addition to Lebanon, the ACLU identified seven other counties with similar policies: Elk, Forest, Indiana, Jefferson, Lycoming, Northampton and Potter, according to court documents.

Those on probation in Lebanon County were notified on Sept. 1 2019 that any traces of marijuana — whether for medical use or otherwise — had to be out of their systems by Oct. 1, said Vic Walczak, ACLU Pennsylvania’s legal director, when the lawsuit was filed last fall.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor wrote that “the Policy as stated in its original and amended forms is deemed to be contrary to the immunity accorded by Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act, and as such, the Policy shall not be enforced.”

The county had argued that regardless of whether the plaintiffs had permission to use medical marijuana, the judge should be able to bar its use the same way judges bar people on probation from using alcohol, which can be obtained legally.

The county’s position was that “requiring adherence to such general conditions assists with rehabilitation and reduces the risk of recidivism,” Saylor wrote.

Saylor pointed to a 2008 case out of Montana that observed that since medical marijuana use is authorized by a physician, medical marijuana should be treated more like a prescription drug than like alcohol.

“Although the District highlights that the general conditions’ restrictions on alcohol and mind-and/or mood-altering drugs go hand in hand, the Legislature has not implemented a remedial scheme authorizing the use of alcohol for treatment of serious medical conditions,” Saylor wrote.

The county had also asserted in court documents that the judge should have the authority to require that people on probation comply with federal law. While the use of medical marijuana is legal in Pennsylvania, the federal government has no similar protection for medical use of the drug.

Saylor, in his opinion, notes that the federal government has made clear that states are being allowed to operate medical marijuana programs, and there’s no legal justification for the county to bar people from using medical marijuana when the state Legislature passed legislation to permit its use.

The Supreme Court ruling indicated that judges can hold hearings to try to determine if an individual’s marijuana use is limited to medical use.

“Nothing in this Opinion restrains judges and probation officials supervising probationers and others from making reasonable inquiries into whether the use of marijuana by a person under court supervision is lawful under the Act,” Saylor wrote.

“This is a major victory for people who rely on medical marijuana to treat their medical conditions,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We are grateful that the justices understood the Legislature’s clear intent that people who lawfully use this treatment should not be punished for it.”

The plaintiffs represented by the ACLU in the Lebanon County case include Melissa Gass, a 41-year-old woman who uses medical marijuana to prevent seizures who is on probation for an assault charge stemming from a fight with her husband.

“We fought so hard for this win,” Gass said. “Medical marijuana allows me to be a mom and a grandma. I had to fight for my life and for the lives of others who are helped by medical cannabis. I am incredibly grateful for this outcome.”

Another of the plaintiffs was Ashley Bennett, a 33-year-old woman who used medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder and is on probation due to a conviction for possessing marijuana.

“For years, I’ve been living sick every day, and medical marijuana allows me to lead the kind of life I want,” Bennett said. “When probation banned medical marijuana, I was sick, couldn’t get out of bed, and lost 30 pounds. This ruling is exactly what we all hoped for.”

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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