Key Medical Marijuana Decisions – People v. Spark

Also see: Key Medical Marijuana Decisions by California Courts

People v. Spark

Citation 121 Cal. App. 4th 259, 16 Cal. Rptr. 3d 840 (2004)
PDF of Full Opinion https://www.canorml.org/legal/spark.pdf
Fact Summary The defendant was charged with cultivation of marijuana. At trial, the physician testified that he conducted an examination and determined the defendant suffered from back pain but acknowledged that, when he examined, he did not review any of the defendant’s medical records and used only his hands and his eyes when examining the defendant. In response, the People presented evidence from undercover law enforcement investigations that the physician did not actually perform examinations but simply provided medical marijuana recommendations in exchange for money. The defendant was found guilty of cultivation of marijuana after the jury was instructed that an as element for a defense under the Compassionate use Act (“CUA”), the defendant must prove he was “seriously ill”.
Summary Rule of Law A defense under the CUA does not require a defendant to present evidence that he or she was “seriously ill”. A reference to “seriously ill” is omitted from the provision of the CUA that provides a defense to patients. Moreover, the only reference “seriously ill” contains a list of specified illnesses or conditions that ends with a catchall phrase “or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” A physician’s determination on this medical issue is not to be second-guessed by jurors who might not deem the patient’s condition to be sufficiently “serious”.
Facts & Procedure Following an anonymous tip about marijuana growing in the backyard of a home, law enforcement went to the home, searched the backyard, discovered and seized three marijuana plants. 121 Cal. App. 4th at 262−63. The resident present informed law enforcement the plants belonged to her son, the defendant. Id. at 263. The defendant telephoned law enforcement the next day and admitted the marijuana plants were his but “claimed that he smoked marijuana for pain and that he had obtained a marijuana prescription from [a physician].” Id. The defendant was charged with cultivation of marijuana. Id. at 262. At trial, the physician testified that he “conducted an examination and determined [the defendant] suffered from back pain” but “acknowledged that, when he examined . . . , he did not review any of [the defendant’s] medical records” and “used only his hands and his eyes when examining [the defendant].” Id. at 263. In response, the People presented evidence from undercover law enforcement investigations that the physician did not actually perform examinations but simply provided medical marijuana recommendations in exchange for money. See id. at 264−65. However, another physician testified that after giving the defendant a physical exam and reviewing the defendant’s medical records, he “concluded [the defendant] suffered from chronic back pain.” Id. at 263−64. Nevertheless, the defendant was found guilty of cultivation of marijuana after the jury was instructed that an as element for a defense under the CUA, the defendant must prove he “was seriously ill.” Id. at 262.
Issue 1. Does a defense under the CUA require a defendant to present evidence that he or she was “seriously ill”?
Holding 1. A defense under the CUA does not require a defendant to present evidence that he or she was “seriously ill”. 121 Cal. App. 4th at 262. When a law is adopted by the voters via initiative, courts construe the statute by “seek[ing] to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the electorate in adopting the law.” Id. at 267 (citations omitted). Courts “first look to the words of the enactment because the words used are generally the most reliable indicator of the intent of the electorate.” Id. (citations omitted). To begin, “the only reference to ‘seriously ill’ is in the prefatory, or purpose, statement of the act.” Id. (citing the CUA). A reference to “seriously ill” is omitted from the provision of the CUA that provides a defense to patients. See id. (citing the CUA). “Second, although the prefatory language . . . contains a reference to ‘seriously ill Californians,’ that subdivision also contains a list of specified illnesses or conditions for which the medical use of marijuana might be ‘deemed appropriate’ and ‘recommended by a physician who has determined that the person’s health would benefit from the use of marijuana . . . .’” Id. at 268 (citing the CUA). Moreover, the list of specified illnesses or conditions “ends with a catchall phrase ‘or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.’” Id. (citing the CUA).

“[B]earing in mind that [courts] must construe and harmonize, so far as possible, all parts of a statute . . . , . . . the voters of California did not intend to limit the compassionate use defense to those patients deemed by a jury to be ‘seriously ill.’” Id. (citation omitted). As evidenced by the language of the entire statute, “the question of whether the medical use of marijuana is appropriate for a patient’s illness is a determination to be made by a physician.” See id. “A physician’s determination on this medical issue is not to be second-guessed by jurors who might not deem the patient’s condition to be sufficiently ‘serious.’” Id.

Discussion Spark is obviously an important decision in upholding and arguably expanding medical marijuana patient rights. To begin, the decision makes medical marijuana legally available to a much broader range of patients by emphasizing the CUA’s catchall phrase “or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” Moreover, the decision makes it clear that the decision to use medical marijuana for treatment is between patient and physician rather than patient and government or patient and juror. Except for as it relates to the Federal Controlled Substances Act, the primacy of the patient and physician relationship is generally consistent with Federal Constitutional Law substantive due process jurisprudence. See, e.g., Raich v. Gonzales, 500 F.3d 850, 862−63 (9th Cir. 2007) (“The Supreme Court has a long history of recognizing unenumerated fundamental rights as protected by substantive due process, even before the term evolved into its modern usage.”).

That noted, like People v. Jones, 112 Cal. App. 4th 341, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 916 (2003), Spark is also noteworthy in its approach for interpreting the CUA. Both decisions look at the words and language of the CUA and finding no ambiguity, applies the words and language to the decision at hand. Neither decision makes any mention of ballot pamphlet arguments. Unfortunately, the Spark/Jones approach of heavy reliance of the CUA text is not the typical approach. For example, see People v. Mower, 28 Cal. 4th 457, 469, 49 P.3d 1067, 1074 (2002) (citing California Ballot Pamphlet: General Election November 5, 1996 at 61 (1996)):

“Neither can [the CUA] reasonably be read to grant immunity from arrest by implication. As the proponents of Proposition 215 declared in their rebuttal to the argument of the measure’s opponents: ‘Police officers can still arrest anyone for marijuana offenses.’”

In other words, as far as the CUA is concerned, courts read into the ballot pamphlet arguments when constraining the CUA and restricting medical marijuana patient rights. The reason is simple: on a plain reading, the text of the CUA provides fairly expansive patient rights. For an illustration of how a plain reading of the CUA should have led the courts to interpret the CUA as providing patients immunity from arrest rather than just an affirmative defense, see Damian A. Martin, Comment, California Medical Marijuana Law: The Voters and Legislature Have Made Their Decision; Now Let Them Interpret It!, J.L. Econ. & Pol’y (forthcoming 2014–2015).

Quotable Excerpts The list ends with a catchall phrase “or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”

People v. Spark, 121 Cal. App. 4th 259, 268, 16 Cal. Rptr. 3d 840, 846 (2004) (citing the CUA).

[W]e conclude that the voters of California did not intend to limit the compassionate use defense to those patients deemed by a jury to be “seriously ill.”

People v. Spark, 121 Cal. App. 4th 259, 268, 16 Cal. Rptr. 3d 840, 846 (2004).

[T]he question of whether the medical use of marijuana is appropriate for a patient’s illness is a determination to be made by a physician. A physician’s determination on this medical issue is not to be second-guessed by jurors who might not deem the patient’s condition to be sufficiently “serious.”

People v. Spark, 121 Cal. App. 4th 259, 268, 16 Cal. Rptr. 3d 840, 846-47 (2004).

We also observe that none of the published opinions addressing the Compassionate Use Act has assumed or suggested that the compassionate use defense includes being “seriously ill” as one of the facts underlying this defense.

People v. Spark, 121 Cal. App. 4th 259, 268, 16 Cal. Rptr. 3d 840, 847 (2004) (citations omitted).

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