Key Medical Marijuana Decisions – People v. Wright

Also see: Key Medical Marijuana Decisions by California Courts

People v. Wright

Citation 40 Cal. 4th 81, 146 P.3d 531 (2006)
PDF of Full Opinion https://www.canorml.org/legal/wright.pdf
Fact Summary Law enforcement stopped the defendant while in his vehicle. After a search revealed found six small baggies of marijuana, two large bags of marijuana, and an electronic scale, the defendant was charged with possessing marijuana for sale and transporting marijuana. The defendant’s physician testified that he had recommended that defendant use marijuana to alleviate his medical problems. Nevertheless, the trial court ruled that the Compassionate Use Act (“CUA”) did not apply in a transportation case. Instead, the trial court only allowed the defense to present evidence of medical use as proof that defendant possessed the marijuana for personal medical use and not to sell. The jury convicted defendant of both possessing marijuana for sale and transporting marijuana. In the Court of Appeal, a conflict arose regarding whether and under what circumstances a defense under the CUA applies to the charge of transportation, resulting from the conflicting precedent of People v. Trippet and People v. Young. Moreover, while the case was pending review by the Supreme Court of California, the Legislature enacted the Medical Marijuana Program Act (“MMPA”).
Summary Rule of Law Under the MMPA, either the holder of an identification card or a qualified patient may assert the CUA as a defense to a charge of transporting marijuana. Because the MMPA applies to this case, it is unnecessary to resolve the split of authority between Trippet and Young. However, Trippet’s test—whether “the quantity transported and the method, timing and distance of the transportation are reasonably related to the patient’s current medical needs”—survived the enactment of the MMPA and remains a useful analytic tool. As a result, the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the CUA defense to the charge of transportation of marijuana does not constitute a prejudicial error where a jury convicts a defendant under the proper instruction to the charge of possession of marijuana for sale.
Facts & Procedure Following “a tip that a vehicle at a car wash smelled as if it contained marijuana”, law enforcement stopped the defendant while in his vehicle. 40 Cal. 4th at 85. After a search revealed “six small baggies of marijuana, two large bags of marijuana[,] and an electronic scale”, the defendant was charged with possessing marijuana for sale and transporting marijuana. Id. at 86. At trial, law enforcement testified “that in their opinion defendant possessed the marijuana to sell, not for his personal use.” Id. However, the defendant’s physician testified “that he had recommended that defendant use marijuana to alleviate his medical problems.” Id. Moreover, the defendant testified that while he smoked marijuana, he also preferred to eat it, and “explained that he had not purchased the marijuana in a single large bag because it had different potencies and was used for different purposes, like cooking as opposed to smoking.” Id. at 87−88. Nevertheless, “the trial court ruled that the CUA did not apply ‘in a transportation case . . . .’” Id. at 87. Instead, the trial court only “allowed the defense to present evidence of medical use as proof that defendant possessed the marijuana for personal medical use and not to sell.” Id. “The jury convicted defendant of both possessing marijuana for sale and transporting marijuana.” Id. at 89. In the Court of Appeal, a conflict arose “regarding whether and under what circumstances” a defense under the CUA applies to the charge of transportation, resulting from the conflicting precedent of People v. Trippet, 56 Cal. App. 4th 1532, 66 Cal. Rptr. 2d 559 (1997) as compared with and People v. Young, 92 Cal. App. 4th 229, 111 Cal. Rptr. 2d 726 (2001). Moreover, while the case was pending review by the Supreme Court of California, the Legislature enacted the MMPA. Id. at 84−85.
Issues 1. Does the CUA defense apply to the charge of transportation of marijuana?

2. Did the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the CUA defense to the charge of transportation of marijuana constitute a prejudicial error?

Holdings 1. “[U]nder the MMPA, either the holder of an identification card . . . or a ‘qualified patient’ . . . may assert the CUA as a defense to a charge of transporting marijuana.” 40 Cal. 4th at 94. “[T]he Legislature established a voluntary program” and “extended certain protections to individuals who elected to participate in the identification card program.” Id. at 93. “Those protections included immunity from prosecution for a number of marijuana-related offenses that had not been specified in the CUA, among them transporting marijuana.” Id. However, “[t]he Legislature did not limit the availability of a CUA defense to these other marijuana-related offenses only to individuals who chose to participate in the card identification program.” Id. “Rather, . . . the Legislature defined the individuals exempt from criminal liability for the offenses ‘[a] qualified patient or a person with an identification card who transports or processes marijuana for his or her own personal medical use.’” Id. (emphasis in original) (citing Health & Safety Code § 11362.765). “The MMP[A] defines the term ‘qualified patient’ as “a person who is entitled to the protections of [the CUA, but who does not have an identification card issued pursuant to this article.’” Id. at 93−94 (citing Health & Safety Code § (§ 11362.7(f)). Because the MMPA “applies to this case, it is unnecessary to resolve the split of authority between Trippet and Young.” Id. at 92. The MMPA “has rendered moot the conflict between these decisions . . . .” Id. However, Trippet’s test—whether “the ‘quantity transported and the method, timing and distance of the transportation are reasonably related to the patient’s current medical needs’”—“survived the enactment of the MMP[A] and remains a useful analytic tool to the extent it is consistent with the statute.” Id. at 92 & n.7 (citing Trippet, supra, 56 Cal. App. 4th at 1551).

2. The trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the CUA defense to the charge of transportation of marijuana did not constitute a prejudicial error. See 40 Cal. 4th at 99. A trial court failure to instruct a jury is “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under circumstances in which the factual question posed by the omitted instruction was necessarily resolved adversely to the defendant under other, properly given instructions.” Id. (citations and internal quotations omitted). Here, “the jury necessarily rejected the factual predicate of the omitted CUA defense—that defendant possessed and, by extension, transported marijuana for his personal medicinal use—when, under other, properly given instructions, it found that he possessed the drug with the specific intent to sell it.” Id. “Accordingly, the jury necessarily resolved, although in a different setting, the same factual question that would have been presented by the missing instruction . . . , in a manner adverse to defendant.” Id. (citations and internal quotations omitted). “[T]herefore, . . . the instructional error was harmless under any standard of prejudice.” Id.

Dicta “The Attorney General fails to cite any provision of the MMP[A] that supports his assertion that a defendant must identify himself or herself as a medical user of marijuana before he or she can assert a CUA defense to a charge of transporting marijuana.” 40 Cal. 4th at 96. “To the contrary, the relevant provisions of the MMP[A] contain no such requirement.” Id. “Section 11362.7 defines a qualified patient as ‘a person who is entitled to the protections of [the CUA], but who does not have an identification card issued pursuant to this article.’” Id. (citing § 11362.7(f)). “Section 11362.765 provides that a ‘qualified patient . . . who transports . . . marijuana for his or her own medical use’ shall not be criminally liable for transporting marijuana.” Id. at 97 (citing § 11362.765(b)(1)). “Neither of these provisions requires a qualified patient to identify himself or herself to police as a medicinal user of marijuana as a condition to asserting any defenses extended to such person by the MMP[A].” Id. “Thus, the Attorney General’s argument has no basis in the statute, nor does he cite any other authority to support it.” Id. “No doubt evidence that a defendant failed to identify himself or herself to police as a medicinal user of marijuana may have some bearing on whether a jury believes his or her CUA defense, but this is a different question than whether the defendant is entitled to assert the defense at all.” Id.
Discussion Wright was the Supreme Court of California’s first decision involving the MMPA. For the sake of comparison, it is worth noting that the first California Supreme Court decision regarding the MMPA came less than three years after implementation but for the CUA it took almost six years. One may speculate on the reasons for the different treatment, but the legislation versus initiative aspect likely played a role.

On the transportation issue, the MMPA’s explicit numeration of transportation may have spared the Supreme Court of California from having to explicitly resolve the conflict between People v. Trippet, 56 Cal. App. 4th 1532, 66 Cal. Rptr. 2d 559 (1997), and People v. Young, 92 Cal. App. 4th 229, 111 Cal. Rptr. 2d 726 (2001). However, Trippet’s understanding was ultimately validated. In other words, the MMPA extends the CUA defense to the charge of transportation of marijuana so long as the quantity transported and the method, timing and distance of the transportation are reasonably related to the patient’s current medical needs. As later demonstrated in People v. Wayman, 189 Cal. App. 4th 215, 116 Cal. Rptr. 3d 833 (2010), the Trippet-test may actually limit the circumstances in which medical marijuana can be transported. For a more in-depth discussion on the transportation of marijuana issue, see Jared Willis, Comment, The Hazy Cloud Engulfing Cultivation, Possession, and Transportation of Aggregate Amounts of Collectively Cultivated Medical Marijuana Pursuant to California Health and Safety Code Section 11362.775, 40 W. St. U. L. Rev. 135, 137 (2013).

On the instructional error issue, Wright provides a cautionary tale for future cases involving possession of marijuana for sale charges. In these cases, if the prosecutor manages to succeed in keeping the CUA instruction away from the jury and gets a conviction of the possession of marijuana for sale charge, there are limited grounds for an appeal even if the lack of instruction actually was erroneous.

One last item bears mentioning—retroactivity. Along with Wright, multiple cases have discussed retroactive application of the CUA and MMPA. See People v. Urziceanu, 132 Cal. App. 4th 747, 33 Cal. Rptr. 3d 859 (2005); People v. Frazier, 128 Cal. App. 4th 807, 27 Cal. Rptr. 3d 336 (2005); People v. Rigo, 69 Cal. App. 4th 409, 81 Cal. Rptr. 2d 624 (1999); People ex rel. Lungren v. Peron, 59 Cal. App. 4th 1383, 70 Cal. Rptr. 2d 20 (1997); People v. Trippet, 56 Cal. App. 4th 1532, 66 Cal. Rptr. 2d 559 (1997). The retroactivity issue has not been presented above or on the pages cited because the issue is moot regarding future CUA and MMPA cases. Nevertheless, the issue may come into play with future marijuana legislation and initiatives. On that note, here is Wright’s analysis for evaluating the retroactive application of the MMPA:

On the issue of retroactivity of the MMP[A], the court, after citing Trippet’s conclusion regarding the retroactivity of the CUA declared: “The same reasoning applies here . . . . [T]he Medical Marijuana Program Act sets forth the new affirmative defense allowing collective cultivation of marijuana, expands the defense to penal sections not identified by the Compassionate Use Act, and contains no saving clause. These facts lead us to the conclusion that this law must also be retroactively applied.” (People v. Urziceanu, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th at p. 786, 33 Cal.Rptr.3d 859; accord, People v. Frazier, supra, 128 Cal.App.4th at p. 826, 27 Cal.Rptr.3d 336 [“To the extent that the Medical Marijuana Program sets forth new affirmative defenses, expands the defense identified by the Compassionate Use Act, and contains no savings clause, that law must be retroactively applied”].) We agree with the analysis set forth in Trippet, Urziceanu and Frazier and conclude, therefore, that the MMP[A] must be retroactively applied.

40 Cal. 4th at 95. Overall, the analysis is fairly straightforward since
“the Legislature is presumed to have extended to defendants whose appeals are pending the benefits of intervening statutory amendments which decriminalize formerly illicit conduct . . . , or reduce the punishment for acts which remain unlawful.” Trippet, 56 Cal. App. 4th at 1544. Only an explicit statement (i.e. a savings clause) to the contrary will rebut the presumption.

Quotable Excerpts The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (the CUA) ensures that Californians who obtain and use marijuana for specified medical purposes upon the recommendation of a physician are not subject to certain criminal sanctions. (Health & Saf.Code, § 11362.5.)

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 84, 146 P.3d 531, 533 (2006).

Among its provisions, the MMP specifically provides an affirmative defense to the crime of transporting marijuana by individuals entitled to the protections of the CUA. (§ 11362.765.)

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 85, 146 P.3d 531, 533 (2006).

By authorizing a CUA defense to these other marijuana-related offenses, the Legislature furthered its goal of “address[ing] additional issues that were not included within the act, and that must be resolved in order to promote the fair and orderly implementation of the act.” (Stats.2003, ch. 875, § 1, subd. (c).)

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 93, 146 P.3d 531, 539 (2006).

The Legislature did not limit the availability of a CUA defense to these other marijuana-related offenses only to individuals who chose to participate in the card identification program.

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 93, 146 P.3d 531, 539 (2006).

Thus, under the MMP, either the holder of an identification card holder or a “qualified patient”—someone entitled to the protections of the CUA, but who does not have an identification card—may assert the CUA as a defense to a charge of transporting marijuana.

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 94, 146 P.3d 531, 539 (2006).

The MMP contains its own definition of “serious medical condition” that is somewhat broader than that set forth in the CUA. (§ 11362.7, subd. (h).)

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 94 n.8, 146 P.3d 531, 539 n.8 (2006).

The court observed that the MMP “represents a dramatic change in the prohibitions on the use, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana for persons who are qualified patients or their primary caregivers and fits the defense defendant attempted to present at trial. Its specific itemization of the marijuana sales law indicates it contemplates the formation and operation of medicinal marijuana cooperatives that would receive reimbursement for marijuana and the services provided in conjunction with the provision of that marijuana.”

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 95, 146 P.3d 531, 540 (2006) (quoting People v. Urziceanu, 132 Cal. App. 4th 747, 785, 33 Cal. Rptr. 3d 859, 883 (2005)).

As noted, the MMP specifically provides that a qualified patient shall not be criminally liable for transporting marijuana “for his or her own personal medical use.” (§ 11362.765, subd. (b)(1).) In this case, defendant was charged with transporting marijuana. He presented evidence at trial that he had purchased the marijuana found in his car on the morning of his arrest for his own personal medical use and was in the process of transporting the marijuana to his home when he was arrested. This testimony was sufficient to merit instruction on the defense to a charge of transporting marijuana set forth in the MMP.

People v. Wright, 40 Cal. 4th 81, 96, 146 P.3d 531, 541 (2006).

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