The Arizona Supreme Court on May 23 ruled that the state cannot bring criminal charges against public college students for possession of cannabis on campus if they are enrolled in the state medical marijuana program.
The ruling came in the case of Andre Maestas, the Arizona State University student whose conviction for possession has now been vacated.
Tom Dean, the attorney who represented Maestas in the case, hailed the ruling as a breakthrough, given that it overturned a law that had been supported by nearly all 90 state legislators, as well as Gov. Doug Ducey.
“It was kind of an amazing win,” Dean told the Phoenix New Times. “The judiciary stood up and was not intimidated… It’s great to see the court fulfilling its purpose in such a brave and courageous way.”
Maestas was arrested in 2014 on a charge of obstructing traffic after ASU police found him sitting at an intersection near his dorm on the Tempe campus. A search of his wallet produced a state-issued medical marijuana card. Maestas, who suffers from chronic back pain, admitted he had some cannabis in his dorm room.
Police then searched his room and uncovered 0.4 grams of marijuana, or about one joint’s worth.
Medical marijuana cardholders in Arizona can possess up to 2.5 ounces — well more than Maestas’ modest stash. But Maricopa County prosecutor Bill Montgomery’s office charged Maestas with felony possession based on a law passed in 2012 by a near-unanimous state legislature and signed by then-governor Jan Brewer. That law prohibited all cannabis use and possession at public colleges and universities — even by those registered in the state medical program.
Critics assailed it as an attack on the 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, passed by popular initiative. They also said it violated the 1998 Voter Protection Act, which prohibits lawmakers from changing voter-approved measures unless they can rally a three-fourths “super-majority.” Even then, the 1998 act stipulates that the change must further the law’s purpose, which in this case, it obviously did not.
Montgomery’s office argued that the 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act specifically said cannabis may not be used or possessed in public schools, on school buses, or in prisons. But the high court noted that the list of excluded places didn’t include college campuses. Therefore, the court concluded that voters didn’t intend to criminalize medical marijuana possession or use on campus.
The court also rejected the state’s argument that universities could jeopardize their federal funding if medical marijuana users weren’t prosecuted. “The State has not shown that a university would lose (or has lost) federal funding if a state prosecutor did not prosecute violations of the university’s program,” the court found.
Maestas was just a freshman when he was arrested, but decided to take a risk and fight the charge instead of accepting an offer of deferred prosecution in exchange for enrollment in a drug treatment program. Montgomery’s office later dropped the felony charge down to a misdemeanor, as is standard for first-time offenders. But Maestas continued to fight it.
“A guy that young, to stand up on principle when he was given an easy way out – he had the courage to say ‘no, this isn’t right,'” Dean told the New Times.
So far this year, ASU campus police have made 45 arrests related to marijuana possession or use, according to the Arizona Republic. The ASU website warns students that marijuana use and possession are not allowed on any property the school owns or leases.
As the Arizona Capitol Times notes, the Supreme Court ruling opens the way for any of the state’s more than 160,000 medical marijuana patients to possess their herbal medication on campuses without fear of arrest and prosecution under state law. The ruling upholds a decision issued in April 2017 by the Arizona Court of Appeals, which was challenged by the state.
The ruling also has national implications, as colleges and universities across the several states that now have medical marijuana laws continue to maintain intolerant policies. A related question that may also find its way to the courts concerns whether medical marijuana should be permitted in hospitals and senior care centers.
TELL US, do you have access to medical marijuana where you live?